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Alcohol and Health

Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

May 15, 2023
19 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 15, 2023
19 min read
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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.
May 15, 2023
19 min read
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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 15, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
May 15, 2023
19 min read

Have you ever wondered what that occasional or frequent glass of alcohol does to your brain? There’s this common belief that swigging down alcohol leads to our brain cells waving a white flag and, well, dying. Sounds harsh, right? You may be wondering how much of that is true.

We know that alcohol is a neurotoxin, but does drinking alcohol kill brain cells, or is that an exaggeration? And if not, how much alcohol kills brain cells, realistically speaking? Let’s separate the facts from myths and explore the science behind alcohol’s effects on the brain.

Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells: The Myths

Over the years, several misconceptions have cropped up about alcohol's impact on our gray matter. Let's shine a light on these myths and uncover the truth:

  • "Alcohol straight-up kills brain cells." This is a big one! While it's widely believed that alcohol acts like a neuron assassin, the reality is different. Alcohol doesn't directly kill brain cells. What it does do, however, is affect the health and connectivity of neurons, which can compromise their function.
  • "A few drinks here and there won't do much harm." While moderation is better than heavy drinking, even occasional overindulgence can have cumulative effects on the brain over time. We should be conscious of the quantity and frequency to ensure we’re within safe limits.
  • "Wine is safe; it's only hard liquor that's damaging." While certain components in wine, such as antioxidants, have been touted for potential health benefits, the alcohol content — with the risks that it carries — isn’t offset by them. Whether it's wine, beer, or spirits, excessive consumption can impact the brain.
  • "The 'hair of the dog' can cure a hangover and reset the brain." The idea of drinking more alcohol to relieve the symptoms of a hangover is a widespread myth. While it might temporarily numb the effects, it doesn’t “reset” the brain. In fact, it can further delay recovery and exacerbate the negative impacts.
  • "Younger brains can handle more alcohol." Some believe that younger brains are more resilient and can therefore "handle" more alcohol. While younger folks might recover from the immediate effects of intoxication faster, alcohol can have lasting impacts on the developing brain and can lead to long-term issues, such as liver damage, digestive problems, sleep disruptions, and mood instability.
  • "You would need to drink heavily every day to see brain damage." It's not just about quantity but also the pattern of drinking that contributes to the damage. Binge drinking (consuming a lot of alcohol in a short span) can be just as harmful — if not more so — than consistent daily drinking. Even occasional episodes can contribute to negative brain outcomes over time.
  • "Alcohol only affects the brain while you're intoxicated." While the most noticeable effects occur during intoxication, alcohol’s impact on the brain can linger. From disrupted sleep patterns to changes in mood and cognition, the aftermath can stretch far beyond the initial buzz.
  • "Memory lapses after drinking mean permanent memory loss." We've all heard of or experienced those “blank spots” after a night of drinking. While alcohol can disrupt memory formation temporarily, it doesn't mean permanent memory erasure. But repeated episodes can hinder long-term memory function.
  • "If you drink regularly, the damage is irreversible.” Good news here! The brain is remarkably adaptable. Even if someone has been a regular drinker, cutting back or quitting can lead to improvements in brain function over time.

The Real Deal: Alcohol and Our Brain

Now that we’ve covered the myths, let’s look at the facts of alcohol’s effects on the brain. Alcohol is a neurotoxin, and consistent and excessive intake can cause some pretty gnarly damage. Here’s what it does:

  • Neurotransmitter trouble. Alcohol messes with our neurotransmitters — the chemical messengers in the brain. This leads to mood swings, sleep problems, and even challenges in coordination. (You know, like those wobbly post-party walks).
  • Brain volume shrinkage. Science shows that over time, alcohol can lead to the shrinkage of the brain. Areas such as the hippocampus and frontal lobes are especially vulnerable, and while these changes are usually reversible, they can undermine our cognitive abilities and memory over time.
  • Neurogenesis disruption. Our brains have an amazing ability called neurogenesis — the process of producing new neurons (brain cells). Alcohol, particularly in heavy amounts, can put a damper on it.

Let’s examine each of these effects in more detail.

Neurotransmitter Trouble

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brain that act like messengers, ensuring everything runs smoothly upstairs. When we have a mood to set, a thought to think, or a move to make, neurotransmitters are on the job. But what happens when alcohol enters the scene?

  • Mood swings. Alcohol impacts neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, both of which are big players in regulating our mood. Ever noticed feeling on top of the world one minute, and then a bit down in the dumps the next, after drinking? This isn’t just a coincidence. Alcohol can disrupt the balance of these mood-regulating neurotransmitters, leading to unexpected emotional roller coasters by causing an initial surge of feel-good chemicals followed by a drawn-out crash.
  • Sleep challenges. Even though alcohol makes us feel drowsy initially, it can mess with the neurotransmitters responsible for sleep regulation. The result? We might fall asleep quickly, but experience disrupted, non-restful slumber.
  • Coordination concerns. You might recall a time when after a few drinks, walking in a straight line or picking up a dropped key became a herculean task. GABA, a neurotransmitter responsible for motor control, gets affected by alcohol. With its levels down, our coordination takes a hit.

Brain Volume Shrinkage

When we talk about brain volume, we're referring to the overall size and amount of tissue in the brain. Like every other part of our body, our brain's structure matters for its function. After all, it's the headquarters of all our actions, thoughts, and feelings!

Consistent and heavy alcohol intake over time has shown a tendency to reduce the volume of certain areas of the brain. Now, why is this a big deal? Because when parts of the brain reduce in size, their functionality can be compromised. It's kind of like running a big corporation with fewer employees than needed.

Research points out that the frontal lobe and the hippocampus are particularly sensitive to alcohol-induced volume reductions. These areas play crucial roles in decision-making, memory, and spatial navigation. A smaller volume in these areas might lead to challenges in remembering, planning, or even comprehending spatial environments.

You might wonder, "Does this mean even my occasional drink is harmful?" Well, occasional moderate drinking isn't directly linked to significant brain volume shrinkage. However, the keyword here is "moderate." Going overboard — even occasionally — can have consequences over time.

Neurogenesis Disruption

If you're thinking that neurogenesis sounds like a superpower, you're not too far off! It’s the fantastic ability of our brains to produce new neurons. But how does alcohol play into this? Let’s find out.

Neurogenesis isn't just a one-time event during our childhood or adolescence. Research shows that our brains are hard at work throughout our lives, continuously producing new neurons. These fresh neurons are especially important for functions like learning new things and forming memories. They're like the latest software updates for our brains!

Unfortunately, regular and heavy alcohol consumption can disrupt this neuron production process. Forget where you placed your keys after a night out? When neurogenesis gets interrupted or slowed down, our brains can't refresh as efficiently. This can have a cascade of effects, especially in regions like the hippocampus, which is vital for memory and learning.

How Much Alcohol Kills Brain Cells?

As we now see, alcohol doesn’t “kill” brain cells per se — but it does lead to their decline. So how much is too much? It depends on individual circumstances, such as other health factors, diet, age, and genetics. According to the CDC, “heavy drinking” is defined as 15 or more alcoholic drinks per week for men and 8 or more for women. But those are just estimates, and according to the most recent research, no amount of drinking is “guaranteed” to be safe.

The good news is that our brains are incredibly adaptable. If someone reduces or quits their alcohol intake, neurogenesis can often pick up the pace again. It's like giving our brain the green light to go back to its neuron-making magic.

For those who enjoy an occasional drink, the key is moderation. While one-off instances might not halt neurogenesis entirely, repeated heavy drinking sessions could slow things down over time. Being aware of our consumption helps in ensuring our brain remains in its top neuron-producing form.

The Recovery Road: Can the Brain Heal?

After those long nights and toasts, can our brain bounce back from alcohol’s effects? Spoiler alert: it can, and it’s eager to!

All is not lost — our brains are resilient. If someone cuts back or quits drinking, the brain can often repair and improve its functions. Remember, healing takes time, patience, and commitment.

For one thing, there’s neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to adapt, change, and reorganize itself by forming new connections. Research shows that even if some neural pathways have been impacted by alcohol, the brain can work to build new ones, promoting recovery.

And then there’s neurogenesis — our brain’s ability to churn out new neurons. When we decide to give alcohol a break, our brain gets busy boosting its neuron-making magic. This means, with time, some of those mental fog moments might just fade away. Clearer decisions, better memory recall, and improved focus are all within reach!

Remember those mood roller coasters caused by alcohol messing with our neurotransmitters? As we go easy on the booze, these crucial brain messengers start playing nice again, making emotions more stable and predictable.

On this recovery road, a busy brain is a happy brain. Brainy activities like puzzles, picking up a new book, or jamming on a guitar can really kick the healing up a notch. All in all, while there's no magic "undo" button, the path to recovery is filled with little victories, hi-fives, and brainy breakthroughs. Your brain is ready to team up and get back in shape!

7 Action Steps To Protect Your Brain

Ready to make some changes? Here’s your roadmap:

  • Knowledge is power. Before reaching for that drink, remind yourself of its impact on the brain. A quick mental check can make a difference!
  • Find fun alternatives. Fancy sparkling water with a splash of lemon? Or a non-alcoholic mocktail? Exploring delicious alternatives can be a game changer.
  • Stay connected. Reach out to friends or support groups who understand your journey — a chat can help in moments of temptation. And check out the Reframe app for additional support!
  • Limit and measure. If you choose to drink, measure your intake. Set a clear limit and stick to it.
  • Brainy activities. Engage in puzzles, reading, or learning a new skill. Keep that brain buzzing in healthy ways!
  • Physical wellness. Regular exercise can combat the negative effects of alcohol. Whether it’s a brisk walk, yoga, or dancing in your living room — move that body!
  • Brainy podcasts. There are some fantastic ones out there discussing habits, wellness, and science fun-facts. Each episode is a mini-training session.
  • DIY craft days. From pottery to painting, handwork not only distracts from cravings but also boosts creativity and cognition.
  • Escape rooms. Not only are they fun, but they challenge your problem-solving skills. Bonus: team up with friends for a social boost!
  • Nature walks. The combo of physical activity and nature can ramp up endorphins and provide mental relaxation.
  • Taste adventures. Explore new cuisines or recipes. With taste buds no longer dulled by alcohol, rediscover the joy of flavors.
  • Hydration station. Set up a fun water-drinking routine. Jazz it up with slices of fruits or herbs. It's a toast to your brain!
  • Rest and recover. Sleep is essential. Make sure you get those ZZZs. Your brain will thank you.

Summing Up

While alcohol doesn’t directly kill brain cells, its effects can be far-reaching. But here's the big, beautiful takeaway: the resilience of the brain is nothing short of extraordinary. 

Every choice to sip a little less sparks a ripple effect of healing and rejuvenation. And while the past can't be undone, the future holds boundless possibilities for clarity, growth, and vitality. 

By understanding and respecting the delicate dance of our brain's chemistry, we’re not just safeguarding our cognitive health — we're stepping into a life of richer experiences, deeper connections, and sharper insights. So, here’s to championing choices that celebrate the amazing potential within each of us. We look forward to a brighter, brainier, and more vibrant tomorrow!

Summary FAQs

1. Does alcohol actually kill brain cells?

No, alcohol doesn't directly kill brain cells. However, consistent and heavy alcohol consumption can damage the brain in several ways, including affecting neurotransmitter balance, reducing brain volume, and disrupting the process of neurogenesis.

2. How does alcohol influence our mood?

Alcohol impacts neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are crucial in regulating our mood. This can lead to mood swings and emotional fluctuations after drinking.

3. Can alcohol affect sleep quality?

Absolutely. While alcohol might make you feel drowsy initially, it can interfere with the neurotransmitters responsible for sleep regulation. This might result in non-restful, disrupted sleep.

4. What is brain volume shrinkage and how is it linked to alcohol?

Brain volume refers to the overall size and amount of tissue in the brain. Consistent and heavy alcohol intake over time can reduce the volume of certain areas of the brain, potentially compromising their functionality.

5. What's neurogenesis and how does alcohol play a role in it?

Neurogenesis is our brain's ability to produce new neurons throughout our lives. Regular and heavy alcohol consumption can disrupt this neuron production process, especially in areas like the hippocampus, which is vital for memory and learning.

6. If someone stops drinking, can the brain heal?

Yes, the brain is remarkably resilient. Reducing or quitting alcohol allows many brain functions to repair and improve over time. Neurogenesis, for example, can often rebound.

7. How can I make choices that support my brain's health when it comes to alcohol?

Awareness is key. Remember the potential effects of alcohol on the brain, and consider moderation. Exploring non-alcoholic alternatives, connecting with supportive friends or groups, engaging in brain-stimulating activities, and maintaining physical wellness can all be beneficial steps.

Boost Your Brain Health 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 through the App Store or Google Play 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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