Is alcohol actually bad for your brain?

I’m sure you’ve heard people say something like this before: “Your brain doesn’t stop developing until your mid-twenties, and alcohol can negatively impact your development.” But what does that even mean? Is it just a blanket statement for why alcohol is bad? Is it a scare tactic to keep you from drinking? If you’ve wondered this before, here’s some info about what’s actually going on in your brain when you’re drinking:

  1. The communication between your brain cells slows down. Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it depresses synaptic activity, or the communication happening between neural cells. As a result, your central nervous system and cerebral cortex slow down, which means that you can’t process information from your senses as quickly, and it takes longer to send messages from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body. Ever felt like everything was happening in slow motion when you were drinking? This is why.
  2. You get a dopamine rush. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes you to feel a sense of pleasure. It gets released as your BAC (blood alcohol concentration) rises. Sometimes people keep drinking once the rush is over so that they can experience it again—unfortunately, this can lead to dangerously high levels of alcohol in your blood (and no additional pleasure).

    From “Alcohol, Drugs, and Brain Development,”
  3. Your frontal lobes are impaired. This is important, because your frontal lobes are basically the CEO of your brain. They monitor what’s going, make plans, and coordinate action—allowing us to solve problems and make decisions. That’s why you might feel like your judgment is seriously different than normal when you’re drinking enough to impair your frontal lobes (Note: This starts happening at a .04 to .05 BAC, which depending on your size and some other factors, could be as few as 1-2 drinks).
  4. Balance and coordination are a struggle. This is because alcohol enters your cerebellum, which normally helps you walk, hold onto things, balance, etc. Your cerebellum generally starts feeling it at a BAC of approximately .07 to .08.
  5. You have to pee—a lot. This is partly because alcohol is a diuretic. It’s also because alcohol impacts your hypothalamus, which regulates a number of bodily urges like thirst, hunger, and yes—the urge to urinate. While the impact on your hypothalamus makes your body temperature and heart rate decrease, it makes your urge to urinate increase.
  6. Your memory is impacted, sometimes to the point of blackout. Your hippocampus, which is the primary structure in your brain that forms memories, is not able to tolerate alcohol as well as other parts of your brain. So, it’s entirely possible that someone can be up walking and talking normally, but have absolutely no memory of what happened. For more info about what happens when you black out, check out BuzzFeed’s 10 Facts about Blacking Out that Actually Make So Much Sense.

Those are some things that can happen any time you drink alcohol. But what about heavy drinking? (Note: Heavy drinking does not (necessarily) = alcoholism/dependence. The NIH defines it as drinking 5 or more standard drinks on one occasion 5 or more times in the past 30 days.) Heavy drinking can result in difficulty with a number of cognitive functions, including the formation of new memories, abstract thinking, problem solving, attention and concentration, and perception of others’ emotions.

The good news? Most of these effects are reversible. People who stop drinking are able to recover these abilities. However, researchers believe that the damage can sometimes be irreversible when individuals are drinking 3 or more drinks per day. The frontal lobes of some heavy drinkers literally shrink as a result of chronic drinking.

If you’re going to drink, the important thing to remember is to try to keep your BAC at a safe level. Here are some risk reduction strategies you can try:

  • Stay hydrated (with water)
  • Eat a (nutritious) meal before you drink
  • Pace yourself—consider avoiding drinking games and shots, which will spike your BAC quickly
  • Keep track of how many standard drinks you’ve had
  • Know what’s in your drink/make your own drink
  • Drink alcohol with a lower percentage of alcohol
  • Get plenty of sleep (i.e., don’t go out after pulling an all-nighter—fatigue has a strong impact on BAC)

Stay tuned for more risk reduction strategies to come!

For more information, see:

Kuhn, C., Swartzwelder, S., & Wilson, W. (2008). Buzzed: The straight facts about the most used and abused drugs from alcohol to ecstasy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Available at UNC Libraries!

Kaitlyn B. is the Program Assistant for Resiliency Initiatives at Student Wellness. Read their bio here.

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