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Alcohol and Health

Andrew Huberman and the Physiological Effects of Alcohol on Our Brain and Body

Published:
May 18, 2024
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20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
May 18, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
May 18, 2024
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Reframe Content Team
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Andrew Huberman Speaks the Truth About Alcohol

  • In the Huberman Lab Podcast, neuroscientist Andrew Huberman talks about the detrimental effects of alcohol on our brain and body, debunking some of the most pervasive cultural myths about it.
  • We can use the knowledge that Huberman shares to enhance our brain and gut health and make other choices to boost our well-being while cutting back on booze.
  • Reframe shares science-backed information about the effects of alcohol on our physical and mental health and gives us practical tools to change our relationship with booze, coast through cravings, and connect with a vibrant community of others on the same path.

Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman says that early in his career, someone gave him this piece of advice: “Don’t over-engage in any controversy unless you are willing to stake your entire reputation on it. Rather, keep focused on discovering new things, and creating, or else you become known for the controversy and nothing else; there is no going back.”

And yet, sometimes, taking a clear “no-room-for-exceptions” stance is important if the subject demands it — and Huberman is living proof of that idea. In his case, the subject is alcohol. In the face of confusing headlines touting its supposed “benefits,” Huberman wants to make one thing clear: alcohol is bad for us. Let’s explore why in more detail.

Who Is Andrew Huberman?

A man holding a paper cutout of a brain

Who in the world is Andrew Huberman, and why should we listen to him in the first place? Well, when it comes to the brain, he knows what he’s talking about. A neuroscientist and tenured professor in the department of neurobiology at the Stanford School of Medicine, Huberman has studied brain development and neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to form new connections and rewire itself — for more than two decades. 

Huberman Lab Podcast

The Huberman Lab Podcast is all about bringing that research to the people. While the focus is neuroscience, this “lab” is one-of-a-kind: you don’t have to worry about sitting through tedious lectures on stoichiometry or the Krebs cycle. Huberman is all about making brain science (and science in general) accessible and relevant.

While his past topics include everything from the neuroscience of music to the biology of sleep, alcohol and its effects on our body and mind is what Huberman has become spokesman for.

Andrew Huberman: “Alcohol Is a Known Toxin”

“So alcohol has been used for medicinal purposes, it's been used to clean surfaces, it's used in my laboratory in order to make up so-called reagents to do our experiments, but most humans have been consuming alcohol in order to change their internal state.”

The main problem with alcohol as far as Huberman is concerned? It’s toxic. After all, it’s no wonder that some of its primary uses through the ages have been as an antiseptic. It kills bacteria — both inside and outside the body — and does such a good job of it that we still put it in everything from hand sanitizer to bathroom cleaners.

Unfortunately, when we ingest it, it doesn’t get any less harsh. As Huberman explains, “​​When you drink alcohol, it can pass into all the cells and tissues of your body. It has no trouble just passing right into those cells … The fact that it can pass into so many organs and cells so easily is really what explains its damaging effects.” (Want to learn more? Check out our blog “What Are Alcohol's Effects on the Body?”)

Huberman Lab: Alcohol and “What It Does to Your Body, Brain, and Health”

Out of the many talks Huberman has recorded about alcohol, the one that sums up his findings and views the best is Episode 86: “What Alcohol Does to Your Body, Brain, and Health.”

He starts out by saying that alcohol is “one of the most commonly consumed substances on the planet Earth” by “both humans and non-human animals” alike.

Wait, non-human animals, too? Yes! Science has shown that rats can develop a full-on addiction after getting easy access to booze in their cages. Likewise, hummingbirds sip on lightly spiked nectar just as happily as on the “virgin” kind when given the option.

Huberman goes on to talk about the many negative effects of alcohol on the body, from individual cells to organs and organ systems, as well as psychological and social effects. Here’s an overview of the main points.

1. The Dangers of Acetaldehyde

“Acetaldehyde is poison. It will kill cells. It damages and kills cells, and it is indiscriminate as to which cells it damages and kills.” 

In many ways, acetaldehyde is at the heart of the matter. The problem with acetaldehyde? Well, it’s a powerful toxin that gets produced as a byproduct of alcohol metabolism. 

As Huberman explains, when we drink, we are, in fact, “ingesting a poison, and that poison is converted into an even worse poison in [our] body.” Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for us — and Huberman spends the rest of the episode explaining why.

2. Alcohol and the Brain

“To make it very clear, drinking a lot (3 – 4 drinks per night, every night of the week) is clearly bad for the brain.”

But so is moderate drinking. Huberman points out that chronic drinking at any level — even if it’s not every night — changes the neural circuits of the brain. Specifically, there’s a decrease in “top-down” inhibition and an increase in overall impulsivity. (Those impromptu late-night phone calls to your ex or confessions to your coworker over a happy hour that got a bit too “happy”? Your brain can make a habit of it. Those repeated behaviors are all training your brain to hold off on hitting the brakes when it comes to certain impulses.)

Ready for another buzzkill? In an Instagram post, Huberman points out the reality behind that tipsy feeling some of us chase so fondly: 

“Alcohol is one of the few substances that produces changes in the brain and body not just by causing the release of chemicals but by [its] direct poisonous effects on cells. That’s right, a lot of what we associate with the feelings of alcohol are actually due to cellular damage.”

Fortunately, Huberman adds, this is reversible (phew!). Give it 2 to 6 months without booze, and the neural circuits go back to normal. (For a deep dive into alcohol and the brain, check out “How Alcohol Affects the Brain: A Look Into the Science.”)

3. Gut Microbiome

“'People who ingest alcohol at any amount are inducing a disruption in the so-called gut microbiome, the trillions of little micro bacteria that take up residency in your gut.”

Huberman talks about the “gut-brain-liver” axis to explain the effect of alcohol on the gut. As scientists now know, the brain and the gut are connected via the vagus nerve, as well as through chemical signals. As it turns out, the liver joins the conversation as well! Alcohol disrupts the flow of this three-way communication by messing with gut bacteria while increasing inflammation in the liver, which stokes the fire even more. 

The result is a so-called two-hit model  — an attack from two fronts. The good bacteria are depleted while “leaky gut” allows toxic chemicals to seep into the bloodstream. On top of that, inflammatory chemicals from the liver reach the brain through neuroimmune signaling, causing further damage.

(Want to learn more? Check out “How Does Alcohol Affect Gut Health?”)

What Alcohol Does to Body, Brain, and Health

Alcohol and Metabolism

“The reason why alcohol is considered ’empty calories’ is because the entire process is very metabolically costly, but there’s no real nutritive value of the calories that it creates. You can use it for immediate energy, but it can’t be stored in any kind of meaningful or beneficial way.”

So what happens after alcohol is digested? Do we use any of it for energy? Sort of. When it comes to the calories in alcohol, Huberman is clear about how truly “empty” they are. In fact, he says, even sugar is a better fuel source if we’re looking at it purely from the standpoint of energy. 

Alcohol lacks vitamins, minerals, or macronutrients such as proteins. In fact, it tends to slow down the metabolism of everything else we eat. The result? Those pretzels we’re having on the side or that midnight slice of pizza is much more likely to get stored as fat. (For more information, check out “The Link Between Alcohol and Unwanted Weight Gain.”)

Alcohol and Disease

“The more alcohol people drink, the greater their increase of cancer (in particular breast cancer).”

Finally, Huberman touches on one of the most serious risks of alcohol — cancer. He starts off by addressing all those claims we hear so often about red wine being good for us because of the resveratrol found in it. Those relying on this to justify their nightly wine habit might be disappointed to hear what Huberman has to say about it, but here it goes: the negative effects of ethanol most likely offset any cancer-fighting benefits of the compounds (which are also found in grape or pomegranate juice, by the way).

Huberman discusses the mechanism through which alcohol increases cancer risk. Once again, the problem comes down to the toxic properties of acetaldehyde, which affects the DNA in cells of various body tissues and causes changes in gene expression that lead to the growth of tumors. Once again, there’s a two-hit model in action: in addition to contributing to cancer proliferation, alcohol also delivers a blow to the immune system, which works to clear the body of harmful cells. 

As he talks about the link between alcohol and cancer, Huberman comes back to one sobering statistic: a daily habit of having just one 10-gram drink increases our chances of cancer (especially breast cancer) by 4 – 13%! (To learn more about this subject, take a look at “The 7 Types of Cancer Caused By Alcohol” and “Alcohol and Breast Cancer Risk: What's the Connection?”)

Huberman’s Healthy Tips

Throughout the podcast, Huberman gives some reassuring advice to his listeners. Don’t worry, he repeats, all is not lost, even for those who've had their share of heavy drinking bouts in the past. Here’s some Huberman-inspired advice to help you on your own journey!

  1. Cut back on booze. After everything he shares, this should come as no surprise: Huberman’s advice is to lower your alcohol intake — preferably to none at all or to a couple of drinks per week at most. To make the process much easier, though, focus on everything you have to gain: a clearer mind, better sleep, a stronger immune system, and so much more. While Huberman does talk a lot about the negatives, this is not the time to dwell on what might happen if you keep drinking. Instead, think about all the perks waiting for you if you cut back!
  2. Tap into neuroplasticity. Remember, even if you drank heavily for a while, your brain has a powerful ability to adapt and overcome. Huberman reminds his listeners that within a few months of taking it easy you can expect the alcohol-related brain fog to lift.
  3. Pay attention to your gut. Taking care of your gut health is key to overall well-being! Make sure to eat plenty of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. And to help that gut bacteria directly, go for some probiotics. As Huberman suggests, “Two to four servings of fermented foods per day … are terrific at reducing inflammatory markers and at improving the gut microbiome.”
  4. Take folate and vitamin B supplements. To lower your cancer risk (while keeping the brain healthy as well), Huberman recommends taking folate and B vitamins (especially B12). Of course, always check with your doctor first! 
  5. Lower stress. Stress amps up inflammation, and inflammation makes everything worse. The brain is a prime target for stress-induced damage, so roll out that yoga mat or put on some headphones to listen to meditative soundscapes in order to stay at the top of your game. Your neurons will thank you!

Just a few simple changes can make a world of difference. It’s all about building new habits that last!

Your Very Own Lab

Remember, cutting back on alcohol doesn’t have to be a drag. Think of it as a fun experiment in your own “lab” and get curious about the changes you observe. Start with a challenge, such as Dry January or Sober October (or any other month of the year!) and see where it takes you. Chances are, the benefits will make you want to keep going! And Reframe is here to help you along the way!

Summary FAQs

1. Who is Andrew Huberman?

Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist and tenured professor in the department of neurobiology at the Stanford School of Medicine. Huberman has studied brain development and neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to form new connections and rewire itself — for more than two decades. He brings his research to the public through his podcast.

2. What is the “Huberman Lab Podcast”?

In his podcast, Andrew Huberman brings his scientific knowledge to the general public. His focus is on topics in neuroscience with a special focus on health-related topics, including the effects of alcohol on the body and brain.

3. What are the effects of alcohol on the brain, according to Huberman?

Both heavy and moderate drinking can alter the brain's neural circuits, reducing inhibition and increasing impulsivity. These changes can affect behavior and decision making. Over time, consistent alcohol consumption can also lead to significant cellular damage in the brain.

4. What other effects does alcohol have on the body, according to Huberman?

Alcohol wreaks havoc on the gut, disrupting the “gut-brain-liver” axis. It also increases cancer risk and disrupts the immune system, which creates a double-blow effect.

Drink Less and Thrive With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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