“Too much drinking is going to destroy your brain cells, you know!”
You’ve probably heard it a time or two over the years. Plenty of adult figures have told you about the impact of excessive drinking throughout your life, from parents to teachers to the programs on television. Sure, heavy drinking isn’t a healthy hobby, but does alcohol really kill brain cells?
Experts aren’t sure that’s the case.
You’re likely to feel sluggish, slow, and incapable of concentrating after a night of heavy drinking. It might seem like your alcohol use stole a brain cell or two from you the night before. While research shows no evidence that drinking physically destroys brain cells, it does reveal that alcohol still has a detrimental effect on your brain .
What does drinking do to your brain?
Before you can understand how drinking alcohol affects your brain, you need to understand the different levels of drinking. Most experts split drinking into three categories: moderate drinking, heavy drinking, and binge drinking.
The standard definition of a drink for the categories above is:
Alcohol is a neurotoxin and has both direct and indirect effects on your brain cells. It reaches your brain within five minutes of drinking it and you can feel some effects as soon as 10 minutes after drinking.
Short-term effects of alcohol use include:
Alcohol poisoning is a short-term effect that occurs when you drink too much alcohol in a short period. If you drink more than your body can process, it can interfere with the parts of your brain that control basic functions such as:
Alcohol poisoning can have lasting permanent effects if left untreated, including permanent brain damage or death.
Alcohol use can also lead to long-term effects on your brain such as memory issues or decreased cognitive abilities.
While alcohol doesn’t necessarily destroy brain cells, it can cause brain atrophy (shrinkage) in both heavy and moderate drinkers. Brain atrophy typically affects the hippocampus which is responsible for memory and reasoning.
Again, alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells but it can cause lasting negative effects such as an impact on neurogenesis, your body’s natural ability to create new brain cells.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a neurological disorder caused by a thiamine deficiency. Heavy drinking can create this deficiency and cause the condition to develop. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome causes a loss of neurons in the brain which leads to confusion, memory loss, and loss of muscle coordination.
The effects of alcohol on the brain are magnified while the brain is still developing. Long-term brain damage is much more likely to occur in developing brains.
Drinking while pregnant can damage the developing brain of the fetus and may result in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) including:
Minors who drink experience similar effects on their brains but to a more serious degree. Drinking while the brain is still developing can cause significant shrinkage of the hippocampus as well as smaller prefrontal lobes.
Thankfully, heavy alcohol use doesn’t have to be a lifetime problem. If you realize you need help to stop drinking there are options available. Drug and alcohol addiction treatment or tools like Soberlink’s alcohol monitoring device are some of the common ways people overcome their struggle with alcohol. Help is available if you choose to ask for it.