Last Updated on February 3, 2021
Among all the major organs of the body, the brain is uniquely irreplaceable. While artificial devices and medications might fill in for an ailing pancreas or kidney, for example, there’s no artificial substitute that can do your thinking for you. Nor is the brain replaceable via organ transplant (outside of science-fiction movies). That’s why you need to understand what excessive alcohol consumption might be doing to your brain—and control your drinking so you can enjoy many more years of mental clarity and function.
Alcohol and Brain Chemistry: Short-Term Effects
How exactly does alcohol interact with the brain? Research suggests that alcohol stimulates the production of norepinephrine, which produces excitement and impulsive feelings. At the same time, some studies suggest that it reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates rational thought and inhibits aggression. These two changes make for a dangerous combination.
Alcohol also affects the temporal cortex. While drinking, you may temporarily lose your ability to form short-term memories, otherwise known as a “blackout.”
The cerebellum also “gets drunk” when you drink too much. When the cerebellum can’t function properly, you lose motor control and physical coordination. If you fail a sobriety test because you can’t walk a straight line, your drinking has probably impaired your cerebellum.
Long-Term Risks and Complications
Alcohol’s effects on the brain aren’t limited to short-term dysfunction. A 30-year study of British civil servants indicated that regular heavy drinking promoted brain shrinkage and some loss of cognitive skills. Other studies have shown similar results. Chronic alcohol abusers have also shown signs impairment to their prefrontal cortex, likely because alcohol reduces the brain’s ability to regulate dopamine. This kind of damage can last long after achieving abstinence.
Additionally, heavy drinking may lead to poor absorption of vitamin B1, also known as thiamin or thiamine. This kind of malnutrition can cause a serious problem called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Symptoms include amnesia, loss of coordination, double vision or other eye problems, and even falling into a coma.
Have a hard time remembering what you did when you were drunk? That’s because alcohol disrupts the ability to form new long-term memories—even after just one or two drinks. When you take a drink, you disrupt activity in your hippocampus, which plays a big role in detecting new stimuli and storing memories.
How to Quit Drinking (or at Least Drink Less)
You aren’t likely to wreck your brain through moderate alcohol consumption—one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. But lax habits or increasing tolerance levels may have caused you to nudge your behavior up past the “moderate” threshold. You might feel the need to cut back, or you might even decide to quit drinking altogether. Whichever path you choose, you can take responsibility for your brain’s health by modifying your behavior.
The good news is that you don’t have to resort to checking yourself into a rehab clinic or dedicating yourself to a 12-step program just to get the upper hand over your drinking. Ria Health can provide you with all the tools and resources you need to control your drinking from home. We combine modern telemedicine techniques and frequent check-ins with personal coaches and FDA-approved medications. That way, we can help you stop binging, drink moderately, or take an extended “vacation” from alcohol.