How alcohol impacts our brain

This is the first article in a 3-part series on The Elimination Process. These articles are built on the principles of elimination and the power it holds in healing and optimising our health that we cover in module one of our Thrive online program starting on the 30th of September.

What’s your relationship to alcohol? 

That first-ever sip of alcohol, oh boy!!

Do you remember how it tasted?

Did you like how it made you feel?

Did you experience that version of yourself that was uninhibited, loud, free, and relaxed as if there is nothing to worry about?

Perhaps, you started having alcohol every now and then to pursue this feeling and to experience this version of yourself. Some of us started as occasional drinkers, but it was not long before we crossed the line and progressed from moderate drinkers to regular drinkers. It simply sneaks upon you. And do you remember how you chugged those glasses of beer to numb the pain of your first heartbreak? I remember! Yes, some of us also use alcohol as a crutch to deal with difficult life events.

Even though humans have been brewing alcohol for thousands of years and it has become an integral part of several cultures, how much do we really understand what alcohol does to our bodies and brains? Read on to find out.

Sorry to be a buzz-kill

Did you notice how you felt the following day after boozing all night? You probably woke up feeling worse, hungover, cranky, with severe headaches, immense grogginess, lousiness, mood swings, and emotional dysregulation!

In addition to these short-term effects, regular drinking can lead to alcohol dependence, weaken your immune system, can severely damage your vital organs such as your brain, kidney, liver, and pancreas, and is even associated with several types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. It’s easy to feel comfortable with drinking only once in a while. However, a 2018 Lancet study suggests that there is no level of alcohol consumption that is safe for human health (Griswold et al. 2018

Yes, alcohol can make us happy, fun, and sociable for short periods of time, but this effect is only temporary. Once alcohol wears off, it leaves us with numerous short and long-term side effects on our brains and body.  Excessive drinking leads to inflammation in vital organs like the pancreas and liver. It damages our central nervous system, affecting our emotional control and decision-making abilities.Alarmingly, according to the World Health Organization, harmful use of alcohol results in 3 million deaths every year, accounting for 5.3% of all deaths globally. Furthermore, 5.1% of the global disease burden is attributed to alcohol.

What causes this quick transition from ecstasy to a potential living hell?

Your brain on alcohol

Can you believe that alcohol can actually enter our brain tissue and interfere with the basic chemistry of our brains?

Once alcohol lands in our stomach, it enters the intestine, and quickly enters our bloodstream. And from here, it makes its way to our brains within 5 minutes! Guess what? Its immediate action is shutting down our “thinking brain” i.e. the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain which helps us make rational decisions and inhibit primitive impulses. No wonder we start behaving abruptly and out of character when drunk.

Alcohol shuts down the part of the brain that allows us to be flexible and adapt our behavior to our environment. This can oftentimes make people become reckless and cause them to do or say things without weighing their options or thinking of consequences.

The areas of the brain that promote memory and storage i.e. hippocampus are also inhibited by alcohol. If you’ve ever had blackouts or memory gaps after getting drunk, now you know why.

And those pleasurable feelings of happiness and joy? Alcohol triggers those by inducing a spike of dopamine and serotonin – our happy hormones.

Alcohol mischievously presses all the right buttons in our brains, making us want to experience that effect repeatedly!

From the first flush of joy to a quick downward spell

The dark side of alcohol consumption is revealed when its effect wears off and the feel-good hormones tank, your joy changes into a low mood, emotional instability, nausea, headache, and anxiety.

Among regular drinkers, the brain gets addicted to the intoxicating effects of alcohol, and it will not be long before the “switch on” and “switch off” effects seep into your daily behavior and the state of hangover becomes the new norm!

Indeed, alcohol can cause long-lasting drastic effects on how our brains work. Since alcohol inhibits the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, it also inhibits the inhibitory feedback that these areas of the brain have on our “fight or flight“system. Remember the sympathetic nervous system that we learned about in our previous article (Lu & Richardson, 2014). Alcohol interferes with our SNS and floods our bodies with cortisol, leaving us anxious, depressed, and emotionally unstable!  In fact, there is strong evidence that increased alcohol consumption results in an increased risk of clinical depression and anxiety (Boden et al., 2011; Anker, 2019). 

Wait, there is more! Alcohol not only interferes with our brains’ function but actually kills our brain cells and also decreases our brain’s volume. A recent 2022 study published in Nature Journal documented a negative association between alcohol intake and brain volumes among 36,678 generally healthy middle-aged and older adults. The study suggested that even moderate drinking adversely affected nearly every part of the brain and the effects get worse as the alcohol intake increases (Daviet et al., 2022). Another study from May 2023 found associations between high alcohol consumption and risks of developing  Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and Parkinson’s diseases (Zhang et al., 2023). 

Eliminating alcohol can help you elevate your life 

The good news is that alcohol-related brain damage and damage to other parts of our bodies including the liver can be significantly reversed by abstaining from alcohol (Thomes et al., 2021).

Try abstaining from alcohol for one year and observe for yourself how your mood, energy, and health can completely change:

  • Not only your brain but also your liver which does all the work to remove alcohol from your blood will thank you too
  • Your immune system will function better and you will be less susceptible to diseases
  • Risks of developing cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and other degenerative diseases will be decreased
  • Your sleep will be improved further adding to better mental health
  •  Improvement in your mental health will also improve your relationships
  • And hey, all that money we put down the drain can be saved too!

Yes, quitting alcohol is one of the best things that we can do to lead a better, healthier life to our full potential.

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​​Article by Dr. Chanchal Chauhan – Biocellular Expert

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