Alcohol consumption is strongly established in American culture, and for many people it is a normal part of their day-to-day life. Some people enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, while others enjoy a beer during happy hour or a cocktail (or three) on vacation.
Nevertheless, according to a study that was conducted in 2018 and published in The Lancet, there is no safe threshold of alcohol intake. Even at moderate levels, drinking can be harmful to your health, and the effects become even more severe as consumption levels increase. Some of these symptoms, such as slurred speech and decreased memory, can be extremely visible, but others, such as long-term damage to cellular structures, may not be as noticeable at first.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), drinking in moderation is defined as consuming one drink or fewer per day for women and two drinks or fewer per day for men.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heavy drinking is defined as the consumption of eight or more drinks within a seven-day period for women and fifteen or more drinks within a seven-day period for men.
Where does drinking excessively come into play in this equation? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking is defined as the consumption of four or more alcoholic drinks by women on the same occasion as five or more alcoholic drinks by men.
If you’ve ever been curious about what happens in a person’s brain when they’ve had too much to drink, the following information should answer your questions.
Alcohol’s Short-Term Effects
Consuming alcohol causes changes in the concentration of neurotransmitters found in the brain. These chemical messengers are responsible for the transmission of messages throughout the body and play a significant part in the regulation of behavior, emotional state, and physical activity.
To begin, alcohol has the effect of lowering the activity level of the neurotransmitter GABA, which is what causes a person who is intoxicated to have sluggish movement, slurred speech, and a slower reaction time. A neurotransmitter known as glutamate, which is important for regulating dopamine levels in the brain’s reward region, is sped up by alcohol use. Typically causing you to get a warm and fuzzy sensation as you are drinking.
Alcohol has an effect on the part of the brain known as the hippocampus, which plays a role in the formation of new memories. As a result, drinking alcohol can cause blackouts and gaps in short-term memory. In spite of the fact that women typically drink less frequently and in smaller quantities than men do, a review that was published in the year 2020 in the journal Alcohol Research found that men and women experience alcohol-induced blackouts at comparable rates.
Consuming an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time can, in the most severe instances, lead to a loss of consciousness. Of course, we are concerned about this for reasons related to safety; nevertheless, this is also a sign that the cell is dying. Consequently, we are also concerned about brain damage, which, when caused by repeated bouts of heavy drinking, can have long-term repercussions for a person’s capacity for learning and memory.
The majority of these effects are brought on by a rapid increase in the amount of alcohol present in the blood during a short period of time. Taking breaks in between drinks and ensuring that you do not consume alcohol while your stomach is empty might help lessen the likelihood of you personally suffering these side effects.
Additionally, alcohol reduces inhibitions and impairs judgment, all of which can lead a person to engage in risky activities such as having unprotected sex or driving a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. And if a person already has a mental health condition like depression or bipolar disorder, drinking alcohol can make their symptoms worse and increase the frequency and severity of their mood swings.
In addition, binge drinking has an effect on the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex, both of which are important for maintaining equilibrium. The cerebral cortex is responsible for taking in and processing new information. When certain areas of the brain are slowed down, a person may have difficulties paying attention to what is going on around them, feel dizzy and stutter when walking, have blurred or double vision, and feel like they are walking on eggshells. Your capacity to take in sensory input has been reduced, which means that you won’t be as good at taking in new information.
Alcohol Consumption Consequences Long Term
Consuming alcohol in large quantities at once puts one at an increased risk of social humiliation, physical harm, and poor decision-making. Unfortunately, if you consume alcohol on a daily basis, you run the risk of irreparably harming your health.
Reduces the Size of Your Brain
A study that was published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2021 suggested that heavy drinking could result in a reduction in brain volume. According to the findings of the study, those with alcohol use disorder (AUD) had a lower total volume of brain matter than those without AUD. The parts of the brain that were damaged were responsible for controlling abilities such as attention, language, memory, and thinking. As a result of the alterations it causes in the brain, alcohol consumption might consequently result in poorer memory and decreased judgment, among other effects.
Other studies have also found that drinking alcohol can have an effect on memory. A study that was published in the year 2014 in the journal Neurology found that heavy drinking may hasten the onset of memory loss in early old age, at least in men. Those participants in the study who drank more than two and a half drinks per day showed evidence of cognitive deterioration up to six years earlier than those participants who did not drink, had quit drinking, or were light or moderate drinkers (the authors stated that the data for women were inconclusive).
Alcohol Consumption Tolerance and Dependence
People who drink alcohol on a daily basis may find that alcoholic beverages no longer have the same effect on them as they once did. Drinking alcohol on a regular basis can cause the wiring that is part of your brain’s reward system to become worn out and cause it to lose some of its normal function. You will eventually develop a tolerance, and after some time, the same amount of alcohol won’t make you feel as wonderful as it used to no matter how much you drink.
Because of these structural alterations in the brain, people also change their actions when they are around alcohol. They become considerably more inclined to seek out alcohol and to get dependent on it as a means of coping with unpleasant feelings. When people start drinking, they typically drink because they want to feel good; however, as their drinking becomes more chronic, they find that they need to drink in order to prevent feeling unpleasant.
Cell Death and Damage to the Brain
Drinking to dull unpleasant feelings leads to higher and higher consumption levels, which in turn can cause more harm to the brain and the rest of the body. It is not totally understood to what extent the cells can grow again after being killed by alcohol and damaged in their cellular networks.
You may have heard the term ‘wet brain. “Wet brain” is an actual condition. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the medical term for “wet brain” is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This disease is a form of dementia that is brought on by a lack of thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, in the brain. Alcohol inhibits thiamine absorption in a person and interferes with the enzyme that the body uses to convert thiamine into a form that can be utilized by the body.
Cirrhosis of the liver is another typical result of heavy drinking over a long period of time. Cirrhosis can also cause harm to the brain, as well as symptoms such as brain fog.
Reducing Your Alcohol Consumption
When an individual reduces their consumption of alcohol, damaged areas of the brain may begin to “light up” again on brain scans. There are limits, and can often see improvement only after months of complete abstinence and giving the brain time to heal.
The harm done to the brain (and the rest of the body) by alcohol consumption can even be fatal. People who routinely used 10 or more drinks in a week had life expectancies that were one to two years shorter than those who had fewer than five drinks in a week, according to a study that was published in The Lancet in 2018.
This number increased to four or five years for individuals who consumed 18 alcoholic beverages or more on a weekly basis. The researchers made the observation that drinking alcohol was associated with a variety of cardiovascular issues, one of which was stroke.
How Much Alcohol Consumption is Considered Excessive?
A person should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to drink alcohol, or they should be able to make that decision with the assistance of a medical expert or a mental health professional.
I would suggest reevaluating your relationship with drinking if you noticed that your reaction to alcohol was significantly different from that of other people. If you can drink other people under the table, or if you see your friends leaving alcohol in their glasses and you know you could never do that yourself, those may be signals you’ve got a genetic setup for developing an addiction.
It is essential to take note of the fact that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 specify that certain groups of individuals, including people who are:
- pregnant or think they might be pregnant.
- going to drive a vehicle or operate machinery,
- participating in activities that require skill, coordination, or alertness
- taking medications that interact with alcohol
- managing a medical condition that could be made worse by drinking alcohol
- recovering from alcohol use disorder (AUD)
- under the U.S. legal drinking age of 21
Let’s face it: Alcohol presents a number of challenges. It is acceptable in social settings, it can have positive effects on one’s health if it is consumed in moderation, and it is legal if the user is over the age of 21. On the other hand, it is possible for it to have somewhat unfavorable effects if it is utilized improperly or to an excessive degree. Contact your healthcare practitioner or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) if you believe that your drinking is negatively impacting your life or your health and you want assistance quitting or regaining control of your drinking.