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What Does Alcohol Actually Do to Your Brain? Here’s the Truth.

Fact Checked By: Dr. Liora Mor, ND

What does alcohol do to the brain? Lots of things, actually. Have you ever felt the effects of one too many cocktails — and then wondered how your body went from mild-mannered and sensible to falling down and losing all inhibition? Those are changes that alcohol induces in your cerebellum and cerebral cortex. Have you ever felt relaxed and sleepy after a glass of wine? That’s because alcohol interacts with the GABA receptors in your brain. Maybe you’ve heard about alcohol-related dementia and you’re wondering if your nightcap habit could result in long-term effects on your brain.

There’s no denying that drinking alcohol affects the brain, and pretty quickly, too. But how exactly does it work?

Alcohol affects the parts of your brain that control motor skills and thought. It also interferes with neurotransmitters that govern mood and pleasure.

If you’ve reached this article because you’re struggling with alcoholism or addiction, call SAMSHA’s hotline at 800-662-4357. SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. You can also visit their website here.

What Does Alcohol Do To Your Brain?

As soon as you take your first sip of alcohol, it passes from your digestive tract into your bloodstream. Then the alcohol is distributed throughout your body and into your brain and central nervous system. From there, neurotransmitter activity is affected, and different parts of your brain begin to process the alcohol.

The cerebellum, which controls movement, is affected by the consumption of alcohol. The more you drink, it makes you lose your coordination and balance.[1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6875723/

Alcohol also acts on the medulla oblongata, where automatic body functions are controlled. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows things down. That usually results in feelings of sleepiness.[2]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23546937/

Alcohol further affects the part of the brain called the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is where you process thoughts and sensory inputs. This means that alcohol can make it harder to think and make good decisions.[3]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23546937/

How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain And Neurotransmitters?

There are several neurotransmitters that are associated with alcohol. These include gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, dopamine, and serotonin.

When thinking about what alcohol does to the brain, we’ve got to consider how these neurotransmitters work and how alcohol affects them.

What Does Alcohol Do To GABA?

GABA is what is known as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. This basically means that GABA helps to calm you down. One of the ways it does this is by balancing out levels of glutamate, an excitatory transmitter.[4]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513311/

So, how does alcohol affect GABA? Well, alcohol and GABA are intimately related. When you drink alcohol, it interacts with the GABA receptors in your brain. The alcohol imitates GABA. By binding to GABA receptors, alcohol prevents the neuron from firing. Additionally, alcohol allows GABA to be reabsorbed into the neuron, further increasing the relaxation that GABA is known for inducing.[5]https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/13-24.pdf

This is why you feel relaxed and sleepy after consuming an adult beverage.

When drinking becomes chronic, it is believed that GABA production may be altered.[6]https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/47/5/501/99762 [7]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12662132/ And there’s some evidence to suggest that alcoholics could suffer from lower natural levels of GABA— which in turn drives them to consume alcohol to help activate their GABA receptors.[8]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2577853/[9]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16952998/

This is why some people look to a GABA supporting supplement like passionflower [10]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2941540/ or lemon balm [11]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4245564/​​when dealing with alcohol withdrawal. The idea is that by supporting GABA production, the brain will receive the stimulation of the GABA receptors and not “need” alcohol in order to find a healthy balance of neurotransmitters.

Alcohol And Glutamate

On the other side of the neurotransmitters from GABA, you have glutamate. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. That means that, unlike GABA, glutamate is designed to perk you up (among many other things— glutamate is present in some 90% of brain cells and plays a role in regulating emotions and cognition). A happy and healthy brain exhibits an appropriate balance between GABA to keep things calm and glutamate to keep you from feeling sleepy all the time.[12]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4133642/

When you drink alcohol, it inhibits glutamate in the brain.[13]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4065474/ So since drinking increases GABA activity and decreases glutamate activity it makes sense that alcohol has a reputation for being a depressant.

Recent research suggests that alcoholism could be related to the way glutamate is modulated in the brains of those dependent upon alcohol.[14]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29329417/

 

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Does Alcohol Increase Dopamine?

Even though alcohol is considered a depressant, it also releases dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps you feel pleasure and reward. In this way, alcohol and dopamine are intertwined. While alcohol is depressing activity in most of your brain, it’s also lighting up the reward center of the brain.[15]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826820/

Some researchers believe that it is alcohol’s dopamine-enhancing effects that drive alcohol dependency.[16]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4120286/[17]https://www.nature.com/articles/s41386-020-00938-8

Does Alcohol Affect Serotonin?

In the same way it affects dopamine, alcohol seems to affect serotonin levels, too. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter related to feelings of happiness and well-being. Alcohol consumption is associated in the short term with higher levels of serotonin in the brain and throughout the body. However, since alcohol also interferes with serotonin receptors, it is believed that long-term alcohol use ultimately results in the depletion of serotonin. [18]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7803601/[19]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826824/[20]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780444641250000414

Because alcohol can affect serotonin levels, it’s believed that alcohol combined with medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) could potentially cause serotonin syndrome. Serotonin syndrome is a condition where there is an excess of serotonin in the body.[21]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30844852/ This is one of the reasons it’s not ideal to mix these kinds of medications with alcohol.

Is Moderate Drinking Bad For You?

Some scientists argue that alcohol doesn’t damage the brain, it just interferes with the behavior of neurotransmitters. They conclude that the dire warnings of alcohol “killing your brain cells” aren’t true. Some even say moderate alcohol consumption does not impair cognition in young people and may even reduce dementia risk in the elderly.[22]https://www.dovepress.com/moderate-alcohol-consumption-and-cognitive-risk-peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-NDT-MVP One study even found improved cognition in middle-aged study participants the more that they drank.[23]https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/160/3/240/59156

Does Drinking Damage Your Brain?

  • But for every study showing that alcohol may not be all that bad for you, there are the studies that show:
  • Moderate alcohol consumption associated with hippocampal atrophy[24]https://www.bmj.com/content/357/bmj.j2353
  • Alcoholics lose white matter[25]https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PII0140-6736(93)92185-V/fulltext
  • Higher prevalence of brain atrophy in older adults who are moderate drinkers[26]https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/hs0901.095723
  • In animals, heavy alcohol use rewires the brain and increases anxiety[27]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22941108/

Can Alcohol Cause Dementia?

Alcohol-related dementia is a type of brain damage that’s caused by regular alcohol consumption. In these cases, long-term alcohol use causes behaviors and symptoms associated with dementia.[28]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5086415/

Alcohol-induced dementia symptoms include:

  • Trouble with memory
  • Difficulty learning
  • Decreased balance
  • Lack of focus
  • Problems with motivation

Other Ways Drinking Can Affect Health

Alcohol use has been shown to affect almost every organ in the body.[29]https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm

There have been studies showing moderate drinking may be good for your heart. But there are also studies that suggest this isn’t accurate.[30]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7020057/ And then there are studies that link higher risk for certain types of cancer, notably breast cancer, to moderate alcohol consumption.[31]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3832299/

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