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How does alcohol affect your brain?

Generic stock image to illustrate alcohol and the brain. Alamy/PA.

By Lisa Salmon

If you’ve not managed to stick to those Dry January goals, perhaps you need to have a look at your brain like Bella Hadid, who says seeing the damage it can potentially cause was the boost she needed to stop drinking.

In an interview with Instyle magazine, the model, 25, said: “I have done my fair share of drinking. I loved alcohol and it got to the point where even I started to, you know, cancel nights out that I felt like I wouldn’t be able to control myself.”

But after seeing the effect alcohol can have on the brain, she says it became “a lot harder to pick up the glass”. Hadid, who stopped drinking months ago, also said: “I don’t feel the need because I know how it will affect me at three in the morning when I wake up with horrible anxiety, thinking about that one thing I said five years ago.”

The benefits of giving up alcohol are well known. Alcohol Change UK says these can include better sleep, skin, energy levels and concentration. It can help with mental health too, a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, plus lower cholesterol and a healthier immune system.

But what about alcohol and the brain? “As anyone who has ever had an alcoholic drink will know, alcohol changes the way your brain works,” says Andrew Misell of Alcohol Change UK. “These effects will pass, but long-term heavy drinking can bring about physical changes to the brain. Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) is an umbrella term for the damage that can happen to the brain as a result of long-term heavy drinking, and produces symptoms very similar to dementia.

“In order to maintain good brain health, if you do drink alcohol, it’s important to keep your consumption moderate,” Misell adds.

Alcohol is a depressant, which means it can disrupt the brain’s delicate chemical balance, affecting thoughts, feelings and actions. This is because it affects the brain’s neurotransmitter chemicals that help transmit signals between nerves (neurons). The charity Drinkaware explains that, for example, the relaxed, more confident and less anxious feeling that comes with drinking is due to the suppression of signals in the part of the brain associated with inhibition.

A recent Oxford University study, which used scans to look at the relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and brain health, found no amount of drinking alcohol is ‘safe’ for brain function. The scans showed alcohol consumption correlated with decreases in brain grey matter, which controls movement, memory and emotions, and white matter, which affects learning and general brain functions. The authors concluded: “No safe dose of alcohol for the brain was found. Moderate consumption is associated with more widespread adverse effects on the brain than previously recognised”.

Another study by Johns Hopkins University found the more alcohol consumed, the smaller the total brain volume.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia used MRI scans that measure blood-flow in the brain to try to understand why people can become aggressive and violent after drinking alcohol. After only two drinks, the researchers noted changes in the working of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which helps control aggression.

Drinkaware says regardless of the mood you’re in, the effect of alcohol on the brain’s neurotransmitters means negative emotions can take over, leading to a negative impact on mental health. This can result in anxiety and depression, among other things.

Studies show alcohol affects blood flow to the brain too. Alcohol is a vasodilator (it causes blood vessels to relax and widen) but at higher levels, it becomes a vasoconstrictor – shrinking the vessels and increasing blood pressure, exacerbating conditions like migraine. Indeed, the brain scans of heavy drinkers may show reduced overall blood flow, which the NHS says can damage and eventually kill brain cells and is linked to vascular dementia.

Alcohol Change explains that a condition called alcohol amnesic syndrome, which can occur in very heavy drinkers, involves short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating and confabulation (filling gaps in memories with irrelevant or inaccurate information). Alcohol is also linked to dementia.

Another Oxford University study found alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, is associated with brain problems including hippocampal atrophy. This is shrinkage of the hippocampus area, which plays a critical role in learning, memory and emotion regulation.


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