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The pros and cons of alcohol on the brain

On this episode of the Braincare podcast, we explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of alcohol on brain health.

April 22, 2021
5 min read

With pubs reopened, Brits across the country are flooding back to their locals to enjoy the sunshine and engage in some much-needed socialising.

In this Braincare episode, Sophie Medlin, Head of Nutrition Research at Heights, explores the physical and mental benefits and drawbacks of alcohol.

We'll take a look at the link between alcohol consumption and creativity, and we discuss the correlation between depression and drinking to help you understand how your favourite ales, spirits and wines affect your body and mind.

You can listen to the episode here

Alcohol on the brain: the pros

Alcohol is one of the most popular psychoactive substances in the world, and it can have a powerful effect on your mood and mental state. Most drinkers would agree that moderate amounts of alcohol make us feel relaxed, happier, less stressed, and more sociable. We can even see the positive outcomes of drinking on brain scans with the noticeable release of endorphins that bind to the opioid receptors in the brain. 

While there are many social benefits to having a few drinks, there is generally a nagging concern about the physical consequences. Alcohol crosses the blood-brain barrier where it interacts directly and indirectly with a wide range of neurotransmitters, including GABA, serotonin, dopamine, opioid, and many more. 

The good news is that moderate alcohol consumption can have benefits on our heart health due to the presence of polyphenols in beer and wine. Unfortunately, moderate consumption of most other alcoholic drinks doesn’t offer the same benefits. 

Did you know that alcohol consumption is also linked to the reduction in dementia risk in older adults?  It even has some data in small amounts of alcohol improving creativity. This is most likely due to the reduction in inhibition that we experience when we drink a small amount of alcohol. 

What's the limit?

We’ve all heard that we should be drinking in moderation, but it’s often unclear what moderation really means. In the UK, the safe alcohol limits are set at 14 units a week, which is 6 pints of beer, or 6 medium glasses of wine spread across the week. Remember, binge drinking is much worse for you physically and mentally, so trying to avoid that is essential for optimum health.

The cons

Sadly, we know that the downsides of alcohol consumption almost certainly outweigh the positives. 

A recent British study showed that even moderate drinking is associated with shrinkage in the area of the brain associated with cognition and learning. Those who drank the most had the greatest shrinkage in the hippocampus. In comparison to non-drinkers, those who had more than 4 drinks per day had 6 times the risk of brain shrinkage. In the long-term, we know that excess alcohol consumption leads to significant brain damage. Our brains are really sensitive to damage, so this can have devastating effects. 

How alcohol harms your brain

Alcohol-induced brain damage occurs when the neurotoxic metabolites (small molecules) of alcohol break down. 

Let's break this down.

Basically, alcohol needs to be metabolised and broken down using enzymes* in order to get it out of your body. Studies strongly indicate that alcohol is neurotoxic, meaning that your favourite alcoholic beverage is likely harming your nervous system as it is broken down.

One of the most damaging effects of alcohol metabolism is related to oxidative stress. This phenomenon promotes cellular changes associated with inflammation that eventually lead to cell death. The list goes on—alcohol also causes a reduction in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) , which is a neurotransmitter that promotes survival and growth of neurones. 

It’s also worth remembering how closely alcohol consumption and depression are linked. Depression often leads to excess alcohol consumption, and alcohol consumption leads to depression, so it can be hard to unpick which is the causal factor. At the moment, evidence suggests that alcohol is the driving factor in that toxic relationship.

(**For the nerdy: the primary enzymes used to break down alcohol are aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) and alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH))

Alcohol dependency

Although many of us are able to enjoy the social aspects of drinking without becoming dependent, addiction is certainly a risk. For example, US data shows that 12% of Americans have been dependent on alcohol at some point in their life. Factors like family history, mental health, environment, and genetics contribute to whether or not you’re likely to become alcohol dependent. 

The key takeaway... 

It’s important to consider whether alcohol is having a positive or negative effect on your health and quality of life. 

Try to remember that despite what your friends in the pub might have you believe, you really don’t need to drink to have a good time. Everyone responds to alcohol differently, and you might set yourself rules for drinking for your own wellbeing that should always be respected. As restrictions ease, we can all get back to having fun and still take the best care of our brains that we can.

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