Contradicting claims have been made regarding the effects of alcohol consumption on the brain. Some claim that each drink inflicts damage on your brain cells, while others claim that alcoholic drinks protect against age-related neurodegeneration. The truth is that both of these claims are correct depending on several factors.
Many studies have proven that people who drink moderately are able to enjoy longer and healthier lives. This could be attributed to the significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of many alcoholic drinks. Here are some examples of alcoholic beverages and their health benefits:
- Red wine – Polyphenols, which are found in high concentrations in red wine, are able to reduce oxidative stress.
- Beer – Like berries and dark chocolates, beer contains high levels of flavonoids. One specific flavonoid found in beer is called xanthohumol, which has been linked to memory improvement.
- Champagne – Similar to red wine, the polyphenol content of champagne is also high.
Although alcoholic drinks have different contents, what you drink doesn’t matter that much. What matters more is the amount you consume. Guidelines regarding moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages vary depending on where you are. In the U.S., only one glass is suggested for women and two for men. On the other hand, wine-drinking countries like France and Spain recommend up to two glasses a day for women and four glasses for men.
As seen above, what qualifies for moderate drinking varies between men and women. One of the more obvious reasons for this is that men are typically bigger than women. The hormones and enzymes responsible for breaking down alcohol also work more slowly in women than they do in men. Furthermore, the level of alcohol that gets into a woman’s bloodstream is 30 percent higher than that in a man of similar build and alcohol intake.
Unlike moderate drinking, excessive alcohol intake does not offer any health benefits. Studies have shown that excessive drinking damages dendrites, the parts that connect nerve cells together. Communication between brain cells becomes more difficult as a result, causing the responses of the nervous system to slow down.
When excessive drinking becomes a regular thing, the brain cells get damaged. This can lead to neurological disorders and impairments in brain function, such as memory loss, cognitive impairment, seizures, and neuropathy. It has been reported that cases of memory loss are 30 percent higher for heavy drinkers compared to light drinkers.
Alcohol abuse can also be a cause of malnutrition. This is due to alcohol being a diuretic, which means that it promotes urine production that can wash away nutrients. Aside from this, excessive drinking also reduces the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Fortunately, the damage induced by excessive drinking can still be reversed because of the brain’s ability to heal and regenerate cells. This property is called neuroplasticity. It has been observed that one day of alcohol abstinence can already cause an increase in gray matter, while longer periods of abstinence can lead to an increase in brain volume and better cognitive function.
Aside from abstaining from alcohol consumption, there are also some proactive steps one can take to help the brain recover quickly. These include eating a healthy diet, taking supplements, and exercising. (Related: Alcohol Detox: What to Know If You Need It.)
Other organs affected by alcohol abuse
The brain isn’t the only organ affected by alcohol intake. Other organs that are damaged include:
- Heart — Studies have shown that excessive alcohol intake can lead to enlarged blood vessels, irregular heartbeat, and high blood pressure.
- Liver — Some liver problems caused by alcohol abuse are fatty liver, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.
- Pancreas — Alcohol can confuse the pancreas into releasing enzymes internally instead of sending them to the intestines. This can cause the inflammation of the pancreas, a condition known as pancreatitis.
- Kidney — The diuretic effect of alcohol interferes with kidney function, which leads to a disturbance in electrolyte distribution.