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Does Alcohol Really Kill Brain Cells?

Perhaps you’ve made the joke at one point or another after an evening of ridiculous antics and drinking. It goes something like this, “I killed my last two brain cells last night!”

And while sometimes we do things when we drink that make us feel like an absolute moron, is it actually true?

Does alcohol kill brain cells?

Does alcohol kill brain cells?

We know alcohol has a wide-ranging impact on our brains, but most people misunderstand what it actually does.

Although alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells, it does damage dendrites, the branch-like ends of our brain cells that pass along messages from one neuron to another.

When this happens, we develop cognitive problems. We lose our ability to function properly. It impacts our coordination, sleep, and memory.

In more severe cases, brain damage from drinking can lead to coma or death.

Alcohol Stunts Brain Cell Growth

The good news is that alcohol doesn’t kill existing brain cells. The bad news is that it can prevent new brain cells from forming.

Heavy drinking interferes with neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain.

This process impacts our ability to learn and retain new information.

Cognitive Decline in Moderate to Heavy Drinkers

Studies have shown a direct correlation between moderate and heavy drinking and a decline in cognitive performance and functioning.

Moderate drinkers, defined as individuals who consume between 14 and 21 units per week, were three times as likely to develop right-sided hippocampal atrophy – a condition commonly found in Alzheimer’s sufferers.

That’s all a fancy way of saying it’s shrinking your hippocampus, which leads to serious cognitive problems.

Let’s quickly do the math.

The definition of moderate drinking breaks down to an average of 2-3 units of alcohol per day. A pint of beer contains two units of alcohol. Grabbing a beer after work and having a few more on the weekends is enough to put you at risk.

More on Alcohol and Brain Shrinkage:

When we talk about alcohol-related brain shrinkage, we’re referring to a decrease in brain volume that can happen when you consume alcohol over an extended period.

This shrinkage mostly affects the outer layer of your brain, called the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for essential functions like thinking, planning, and decision-making.

This is in addition to important areas like the hippocampus (as we just mentioned), which plays a crucial role in memory and learning. Things you really don’t want to happen!

Why Should You Care About Alcohol-Related Brain Shrinkage?

The reason you should be concerned about alcohol-related brain shrinkage is that it can lead to a range of cognitive issues you don’t want to be having!

As your brain volume decreases, you might start to notice memory problems, difficulties in concentration, or even changes in your mood and behavior.

Over time, this shrinkage could contribute to more severe conditions, like dementia or other neurological disorders.

The Hippocampus is Worth Protecting

It’s the region of the brain responsible for memory. We use it to remember facts and events and how to drive home from grandma’s.

Those scary blackout episodes? That’s alcohol doing its thing on your hippocampus.

The bad news is the more you drink, the more your hippocampus shrinks. When that happens, your memory woes get worse.

Alcohol and Neurotoxicity

Another critical aspect of alcohol’s impact on the brain is alcohol-related neurotoxicity.

Alcohol-related neurotoxicity refers to the damage or dysfunction of the nervous system caused by exposure to toxic substances present in alcohol.

This damage can manifest in various ways, such as cognitive decline, memory loss, and motor impairments.

Neurotoxicity occurs when alcohol triggers a cascade of events in the brain, leading to inflammation, oxidative stress, and nerve cell death.

These can all result in structural and functional changes within the brain, leading to the cognitive and behavioral issues associated with excessive alcohol consumption.

How Does Alcohol-Related Neurotoxicity Occur?

When you drink, alcohol enters your bloodstream and crosses the blood-brain barrier, affecting your central nervous system.

Once it’s there, alcohol messes with a bunch of crucial processes in your brain, including how neurotransmitters work and the production of vital proteins and enzymes.

The main culprits in this story are two neurotransmitters: glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Alcohol puts the brakes on glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter while boosting the inhibitory effects of GABA. This imbalance throws off your brain’s normal function, setting the stage for neurotoxicity.

On top of that, drinking alcohol can ramp up the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) while weakening your brain’s antioxidant defense system.

This tips the balance in favor of oxidative stress, which can harm your brain cells and cause inflammation.

Over time, these processes can lead to the death of neurons and the cognitive and behavioral issues we mentioned earlier.

Are You at Risk for Alcohol-Related Neurotoxicity?

Several factors can make you more susceptible to alcohol-related neurotoxicity, including:

  1. Quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption: The more you drink and the more often you do it, the higher your risk for neurotoxicity.
  2. Duration of alcohol use: If you’ve been drinking for a long time (months or years), you’re more likely to experience alcohol-related neurotoxicity.
  3. Genetics: Some people have a genetic predisposition to alcohol-related neurotoxicity due to variations in genes responsible for alcohol metabolism or brain function.
  4. Age: Younger folks, especially teens, are more vulnerable to alcohol-related neurotoxicity since their brains are still developing.
  5. Co-occurring health conditions: If you have existing health issues, like liver disease or nutritional deficiencies, you might be more prone to alcohol-related neurotoxicity.
  6. Concurrent drug use: Using other substances, like illegal drugs or certain medications, can make alcohol’s neurotoxic effects even worse.

Can any of this damage be reversed?

While it’s not a guarantee, it’s possible to reverse some alcohol-induced brain damage, depending on several factors. Let’s explore what those factors are and how they can play a role in your journey to a healthier brain.

Factor 1: Severity and Duration of Damage

First and foremost, the extent of your brain damage and how long you’ve been experiencing it can make a big difference.

If your alcohol consumption has caused relatively mild damage and hasn’t been going on for too long, your chances of recovery are likely better.

On the other hand, if you’ve been drinking heavily for years and have severe brain damage (as seen in Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome), reversing the damage could be more challenging if not impossible.

Factor 2: Age

Believe it or not, your age plays a role in your ability to recover from alcohol-induced brain damage.

Younger individuals, especially those whose brains are still developing, might have a better chance of bouncing back. However, don’t let this discourage you if you’re a bit older – it’s still possible to see improvements with the right approach.

Factor 3: Lifestyle Changes

Making positive lifestyle changes can go a long way in helping your brain heal.

Cutting back on alcohol or quitting altogether is essential, but that’s just the first part.

Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and prioritizing sleep can all contribute to a healthier brain.

Also, staying mentally active by engaging in activities like reading, puzzles, or learning new skills can help stimulate your brain and support recovery.

Factor 4: Treatment and Support

Seeking professional help is crucial when it comes to reversing alcohol-induced brain damage. Treatment options can include therapy (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy), medications, and support groups.

Having a strong support system, whether it’s friends, family, or a professional network, can make a significant difference in your recovery journey.

Factor 5: Patience and Persistence

Recovering from alcohol-induced brain damage isn’t an overnight process. It takes time, patience, and persistence.

Be kind to yourself, and remember that every small step forward counts. Celebrate your progress and stay committed to your recovery – it will be worth it in the end!

Take Care of Your Brain

You don’t have to kill brain cells (which would actually kill YOU) to cause serious damage to your brain.

Eventually, years of moderate or heavy drinking catch up to you.

The best protection against brain shrinkage and damage are to quit drinking. Remember, the longer you let it go, the harder it will be to reverse the deterioration.

With early intervention, you can halt brain impairment and restore some regenerative functions of the brain.

The longer you hold off, the more permanent the damage.

Take The AUDIT Quiz

If you’re curious about your drinking and wondering if you are at risk for alcohol dependence, the following quiz asks questions similar to what you’ll get at your doctor’s office. It is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, nor is it an official diagnosis.

If you score high on this quiz, I encourage you to speak with your doctor about your drinking. I know that might sound extreme or scary, but it will be okay. You can do this!

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

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