If you drink, and especially if you drink excessively, you should understand what alcohol does to your brain. Modern consensus is that moderate drinking is fine for your health, but excessive drinking, binge drinking and regular heavy drinking can lead to addiction and other health issues. If you’re considering how much you drink and whether you need to cut back, knowing what is going on in your brain could help motivate you.
Alcohol Messes With Your Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are signaling chemicals in the brain. They travel between neurons in response to different situations and to produce different effects in the body. Heavy drinking, even just once, throws the system of neurotransmitters out of whack. It slows down their movement, which is why you may feel drowsy. Alcohol’s impairment of these messengers also results in mood changes, memory loss and unusual behaviors.
One neurotransmitter specifically impacted by drinking is serotonin. This messenger chemical is released in excess amounts when you drink and is responsible for regulating emotions and releasing endorphins, the chemicals that make you feel relaxed and positive. When you drink too much, your disrupted neurotransmitters act to compensate for the alcohol. Over the long term, this compensation can lead you to develop a tolerance to alcohol, experience withdrawal symptoms and ultimately become dependent on alcohol.
Alcohol Shrinks Your Brain
Perhaps one of the more disturbing facts of what alcohol can do to your brain is that it actually shrinks its overall size. This happens when you drink heavily over the long term, as alcohol causes individual neurons to shrink in size. The results of a shrinking brain include poor motor coordination, sleep and mood disturbances, decreased cognitive abilities and impaired ability to regulate temperature.
Alcohol and Memory
Anyone who has ever had too much to drink and forgot what happened the night before has experienced the damage that alcohol does to memory. It takes just a few drinks to start to see memory impairments, but large quantities of alcohol, especially on an empty stomach, can cause blackouts that leave you with big holes in your memory. Alcohol can cause you to forget certain details or even an entire event or evening. Women are at a greater risk of experiencing memory blackouts when drinking. It is thought that the effects of alcohol on a neurotransmitter called glutamate are responsible for memory impairment.
How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?
Just how much alcohol affects your brain depends on several factors: what your general health is like, how old you are, your gender, when you first started drinking, how long you’ve been drinking and how much and often you drink. The latter is probably the most important set of factors. If you drink in moderation, you will not experience drastic brain changes from alcohol.
If you are a woman, moderate drinking means having no more than seven drinks per week and no more than three at one time. For men, moderate drinking is no more than 14 drinks per week or four at one time. A drink is considered to be 14 grams of pure alcohol, which translates to one-and-a-half ounces of 40 percent alcohol liquor, five ounces of 12 percent wine, 12 ounces of 5 percent beer or eight ounces of 7 percent malt liquor. The percentages are approximate, as they can vary by drink. If you follow these guidelines for moderate drinking, or drink less or abstain, you will be at a low risk for damaging your brain with alcohol.