How alcohol affects the brain and what to do about it
Let’s dive into how alcohol affects the brain in general. “I’m very honest when I say that no amount of alcohol is good for the brain,” says Nicola. This may not come as a surprise to everyone, but it’s still important to note.
Nicola explains that “good for the brain” means serving the brain in any positive way. But many people drink in the evening to relax and (so they think) sleep better. Is it true or is it an illusion? Unfortunately, research points to the latter.
When you look at the composition of alcohol, the main ingredient that makes you initially feel relaxed and drunk after a few drinks is ethanol. This soothing sensation is actually the sedative effect of ethanol, Nicola explains. “Sedation is very different from sleep,” she says. “So if you’re drinking, you’re actually blocking deep sleep and REM sleep, so you don’t even get into those stages.” In other words: you may feel drowsier and fall asleep faster after a few drinks, but the quality of sleep you’ll get is probably pretty poor.
Now let’s talk about brain health in general: when it comes to moderate alcohol consumption, which research 1 describes as seven drinks for women and 14 drinks for men per week (total), brain damage is likely. Research shows that you can have mild brain damage at this level of alcohol consumption, she adds.
The 2022 studies1 Nicola’s research showed that alcohol consumption was negatively associated with measures of global brain volume, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter microstructure. Areas of the brain affected include the frontal cortex, amygdala, and brainstem, to name a few areas involved in creativity, memory, judgment, motor tasks, emotional regulation, heart rate, sleep, and more.