This Is How Alcohol Actually Affects The Brain, If You're Curious
You may know that drinking alcohol doesn't exactly serve your physical health in a positive way. (While the health benefits of red wine are often touted, there are plenty of other ways to get resveratrol, the heart- and brain-supporting polyphenol most famously found in wine.) There's plenty of scientific literature focused on the dangers of excessive drinking habits. But until now, there's been less research on the health effects of more moderate alcohol consumption.
Luckily, we're starting to learn more about how moderate drinking habits actually affect the brain. On a recent episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, neurophysiologist Louisa Nicola, founder of Neuro Athletics, shares some compelling findings when it comes to alcohol and brain health. Below, a quick summary.
How does alcohol affect the brain?
Let's dive into how alcohol impacts the brain in general. "I'm very honest when I say no amount of alcohol is good for the brain," Nicola states. This may not come as a surprise to everyone, but it's important to note nevertheless.
Nicola clarifies that "good for the brain" means serving the brain in any positive way. But many folks have a drink in the evening to wind down and (so they think) sleep better. Is this true, or is it an illusion? Sorry to say, research points to the latter.
When you look at the composition of alcohol, the main ingredient that makes you feel relaxed at first and drunk after a few drinks is ethanol. That calming feeling is actually the sedative impact of ethanol, Nicola explains. "Sedating is very different from sleeping," she states. "So if you drink, you actually block deep sleep and REM sleep, so you don't even get into those stages." In other words: You may feel sleepier and fall asleep faster after a few drinks, but the quality of sleep you get is likely quite poor.
Now, let's chat brain health in general: When it comes to moderate drinking, which research1 describes as seven drinks for women and 14 drinks for men per week (in total), brain damage is totally a possibility. With that level of drinking, research shows you can have low-level brain damage, she adds.
The 2022 study1 Nicola references found that alcohol intake is negatively associated with global brain volume measures, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter microstructure. The affected brain regions include the frontal cortex, amygdala, and brain stem, to name a few—regions associated with creativity, memory, judgment, motor tasks, emotional regulation, heart rate, sleep, and more.
What to do about it
Does this mean you should never drink again? Not necessarily. Instead, focus on balancing your alcohol consumption and limiting your drinks when you can. "One drink here and there is most likely not going to really do any harm," Nicola adds.
"Here and there" will look different for everyone, but some folks may opt to drink only on special occasions or keep track of their weekly drinks to avoid going above the moderate drinking consumption limit (again, that's seven drinks per week for women and 14 for men).
And if you do drink, you can also proactively support your brain in other ways to optimize cognitive longevity. This includes brain-stimulating activities, regular exercise, eating a healthy diet with brain-boosting foods, getting enough high-quality sleep, or even taking brain health and memory supplements.
If you opt for the latter, just make sure to look for targeted ingredients like citicoline—a nutrient that supports learning, memory, and overall cognitive function.
You may know that excessive drinking doesn't benefit your health, but recent research shows that even moderate drinking can negatively impact your brain function. To support your brain and keep your mind sharp, you may want to limit your weekly drinks when possible. Regardless, it can't hurt to incorporate more brain-healthy habits into your routine: Here, you can find Nicola's nonnegotiables.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.