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Alcohol and Health

How Alcohol Affects the Brain: A Look Into the Science

June 4, 2023
9 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.
June 4, 2023
9 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.
June 4, 2023
9 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.
June 4, 2023
9 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 4, 2023
9 min read

The brain is one of the most fascinating objects in the universe. As scientist David Eagleman explains, “a typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighboring neurons. Given the billions of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.”

And yet, it’s also fragile and sensitive to physical and chemical changes in its delicate environment. As we reevaluate our relationship with alcohol, it's important to understand how it affects our brain, both immediately and in the long term.

GABA and Glutamate

When we consume alcohol, it acts as a depressant that slows down our central nervous system and reduces the brain's activity. Two neurotransmitters — gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate — play essential roles in this process. Both are regulated by the hypothalamus, an almond - sized region of the brain that connects the nervous system and the endocrine system and is in charge of keeping different parts of the brain and body in sync with each other.

GABA, the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, works to decrease neuronal excitability. This means it reduces the activity of the brain's nerve cells. Alcohol amplifies the inhibitory effects of GABA, contributing to feelings of relaxation or drowsiness.

On the other hand, glutamate typically acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter, increasing brain activity and energy levels. Alcohol interferes with this action by suppressing the effects of glutamate, leading to brain activity to slow down even further.

Dopamine and the Pleasure Principle

Despite alcohol's depressant properties, it often brings about feelings of pleasure. This is largely due to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that's integral to our brain's reward system. Consumption of alcohol triggers a surge in dopamine activity, leading to sensations of enjoyment and satisfaction.

However, with repeated exposure to alcohol, this dopamine response can become dysregulated. This can set the stage for dependence, as the brain starts associating alcohol consumption with pleasure and reward, leading to cravings and increased use.


Moreover, dopamine has a counterpart — dynorphin — which, when alcohol enters the picture, behaves a bit like an evil twin. Dynorphin is a type of endorphin — those little natural "feel-good" substances that our bodies produce. Scientifically speaking, dynorphin primarily acts on the kappa opioid receptors in our brain and spinal cord. Just as a key fits a lock, dynorphin latches onto these specific receptors, signaling to our brain to respond accordingly. It's a bit like turning down the volume dial on our body's natural pain and stress response.

While it primarily works to dampen our sensation of pain, it is also implicated in our experience of negative emotional states. When dynorphin levels go haywire — as they do when excessive levels of dopamine get released in response to alcohol consumption — it can contribute to feelings of unease, discomfort, or even dysphoria.

In an attempt to restore the brain’s chemical balance, dynorphin can actually lead to increased cravings, reinforcing the cycle of substance misuse. However, because of a build-up of tolerance, with time more and more alcohol is needed to balance out the effects. With chronic consumption, the pleasure associated with dopamine release continues to decrease: we are basically playing a never-ending game of catch-up in an attempt to relieve discomfort rather than generate pleasure.

Hijacking the Prefrontal Cortex

In addition to affecting our mood, changes in neurotransmitter levels also affect the workings of the prefrontal cortex — the area responsible for executive functions like decision-making, impulse control, and long-term planning. It's kind of like the brain's CEO, tirelessly working behind the scenes to keep everything in check. But what happens when alcohol comes into the picture?

Alcohol acts like an uninvited party guest, inducing changes that disrupt the CEO's usual duties. This intoxicating duo turns our usual restraint into a lackadaisical "why not?" approach to decision-making. This can lead to uninhibited behavior, impaired judgment, poor coordination, and memory issues — the classic signs of being tipsy or drunk. Not exactly the best scenario for a smooth-running operation, right?

But hold on! It's not just about the immediate effects; long-term, excessive drinking can cause lasting damage to the prefrontal cortex. This may result in serious problems like addiction, chronic impulsivity, mood disorders, and cognitive impairments, affecting memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. There's also evidence that heavy drinking can cause the brain to physically shrink over time. Yikes! That's definitely not the kind of party anyone wants to stick around for.


Fortunately, the brain is a resilient organ and has a remarkable ability to repair itself. Abstinence from alcohol can help reverse some of its negative effects, particularly on cognition and motor skills. However, it's important to note that some damage, especially those resulting from extended periods of heavy drinking, may be irreversible.

In conclusion, understanding the ways in which alcohol interacts with the brain can better inform our choices regarding its consumption. The power of this knowledge can help us make healthier decisions, reinforcing the importance of moderation and responsible drinking.

Heal Your Brain With Reframe!

If you’re ready to change your relationship with alcohol and make your brain healthier for years to come, the Reframe app is here to help you get started. By using the tools and skills in the app, you can start making changes in how you view alcohol and have more control over how it fits into your life, leading to positive changes in your mental well-being and overall health.

With our #1-rated app, we will give you access to daily readings that will teach you all about the science behind alcohol and how it affects your mind and body. There is a lot more to learn about alcohol and the brain, and our courses can supplement the knowledge you acquire from the readings.

You will also get a set of daily tasks to complete, including a journal prompt and other activities like guided meditations and motivational quotes to help you throughout the day. You will have access to a community of caring, compassionate people from around the world who are ready to share their stories and advice through our 24/7 Forum chat. You can also get connected with licensed coaches for one-on-one counseling sessions and daily check-in calls via Zoom.

The Reframe in-app Toolkit is a treasure trove of resources designed to help you along the way and will provide you with additional information about the way alcohol affects your body and mind. The Reframe app is free for 7 days — so go ahead and give it a try! We would love to help you make a difference in your life and are confident that we can make your journey toward brain health and overall wellness easier and more enjoyable.

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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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