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Alcohol and Health

What Part of the Brain Does Alcohol Affect?

September 14, 2023
22 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.
September 14, 2023
22 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.
September 14, 2023
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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.
September 14, 2023
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Reframe Content Team
September 14, 2023
22 min read

As Mary Pettibone Poole once said, “Alcohol is a good preservative for everything but brains.”

It’s no secret that booze can do a number on the brain — but just what does it do exactly? And how much alcohol does it take to have a lasting effect?

Many of us have wondered what part of the brain alcohol affects and what that outcome looks like. Alcohol's influence on our gray matter is complex, but with a bit of neuroscience we can unravel this mystery together.

The Path of Alcohol

A person sitting in dark with alcohol

When we take a sip of alcohol, it begins a detailed route through various parts of the body, with each stop impacting how we feel and act. Let’s take a step-by-step tour of this journey.

  • From mouth to stomach. The journey begins the moment alcohol touches our lips. A small amount gets absorbed directly through the lining of our mouth and esophagus, but the majority enters our stomach. Here, about 20 percent of the alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, while the rest continues onward.
  • The liver checkpoint. Next stop is the liver. Consider the liver as a sort of processing center. When alcohol arrives, the liver begins to metabolize it to remove it from the bloodstream. However, it can only process a certain amount at a time, so if we’re drinking rapidly, the liver can't keep up, and it leads to higher blood alcohol concentrations.
  • Onward to the small intestine. The alcohol that isn't immediately absorbed in the stomach moves to the small intestine. Here, absorption is much more efficient thanks to the larger surface area. This is when we might start to notice more pronounced effects of the drink on our mood and behavior.
  • Traveling through the bloodstream. Once absorbed, alcohol enters the bloodstream and gets carried to all parts of the body, including the brain, where it starts to show its effects on various functions and regions.
  • Exiting the system. Alcohol doesn't stay in your system indefinitely. After the liver processes it, it gets eliminated from the body through urine, sweat, and even breath, which is why breathalyzers can measure blood alcohol levels.

Throughout this journey, alcohol has a continuous effect on the brain, influencing everything from our coordination to our mood. Let’s take a closer look at the effects.

Setting the Stage: Alcohol and Our Neurotransmitters

Before diving into the brain's specific regions and how alcohol interacts with each, it's essential to first understand how alcohol affects neurotransmitters — the chemical messengers that transmit signals in our brain and facilitate communication between nerve cells throughout the neurological system. They play a role in everything from our mood and appetite to our sleep patterns and motor skills.

Here's a snapshot of what happens:

  • Inhibitory neurotransmitters. Alcohol increases the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). This leads to feelings of relaxation and sedation, and it’s one of the reasons why people might feel more at ease or even drowsy after a drink.
  • Excitatory neurotransmitters. On the other side of the spectrum, alcohol reduces the activity of excitatory neurotransmitters, which are responsible for increasing brain activity and energy levels. When their activity is suppressed, brain processes can slow down.
  • The dopamine effect. Alcohol also causes a release of dopamine in the brain's reward centers, which can contribute to the pleasurable feelings that some might experience when drinking. However, this effect has a dark side: the dopamine surge is also why drinking can become habit-forming.

With these interactions, alcohol sets the stage for its widespread effects on the brain. The modulation of neurotransmitters paves the way for the impact of alcohol on different brain regions, from decision-making areas to the emotion center.

1: The Frontal Lobes: Decision Central

Located right behind our forehead, the frontal lobes are in charge of our behaviors, judgments, and problem-solving skills. They act as the CEO of the brain and are responsible for a whole host of tasks that are crucial for daily life, such as planning, organizing, problem-solving, and decision-making. They also regulate our emotions and control our impulses.

Alcohol tends to muddle up the operations here, which is why after a few drinks, decision-making might feel like trying to solve a puzzle with missing pieces. (Hence those regrettable karaoke song choices!) The usually crisp and efficient communication between nerve cells in the frontal lobes can become sluggish, leading to impairments in judgment and decision-making. We might notice a reduced ability to judge situations correctly or make well-thought-out decisions. There can also be a decline in impulse control, making actions seem like a good idea at the moment, which might not be the case when viewed with a clear head later on.

Why does alcohol have this effect on the frontal lobe? The reason has to do with several neurotransmitters:

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). Alcohol increases the effects of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. In the frontal lobes, this heightened GABA activity can slow down neural processing, potentially reducing our ability to make clear decisions or control impulses. 

Glutamate. Alcohol reduces the activity of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. By inhibiting glutamate activity, alcohol can further decrease the speed of neural activity in the frontal lobes, affecting tasks like reasoning, judgment, and forward planning.

Dopamine. While dopamine is often associated with the brain's reward system located in the limbic region, its release can also impact the frontal lobes. The pleasurable feelings induced by alcohol due to dopamine release can sometimes override rational decision-making processes in the frontal regions.

Serotonin. Alcohol can also influence serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter linked to mood, appetite, and other functions. Changes in serotonin can affect mood regulation functions in the frontal lobes, potentially contributing to mood swings or emotional responses when intoxicated.

2. The Limbic System: Emotion Central

Rather than a specific spot in the brain, the limbic system is a collection of interconnected structures working together. It plays a pivotal role in generating and regulating our feelings, forming memories, and driving motivation. 

Now, what happens when alcohol enters the picture? It's a mixed emotional bag all around! Alcohol can tinker with the limbic system's usual rhythm, altering our emotional responses. This alteration can sometimes lead to heightened emotions, or even unpredictable mood swings. That sudden burst of sentimentality or unexplained irritation could be due to alcohol's influence on the limbic system.

The limbic system is also crucial for forming memories, and alcohol can hinder that process of memory formulation. This is why, after a night of heavy drinking, some events might be fuzzy or entirely forgotten. It's the limbic system's way of saying it was overwhelmed.

The limbic system also plays a part in our desires and motivations. Alcohol can sometimes amplify these feelings, leading to increased cravings or desires related to drinking. Being aware of this can help us understand the urges we might feel when trying to reduce or quit alcohol consumption.

Here is a breakdown of how alcohol affects different parts of the limbic system:

  • Amygdala. This almond-shaped structure is in charge of processing emotions, especially those related to fear, aggression, and social interactions. It helps in forming emotional memories and can influence mood and behavior based on those memories. 

Alcohol can decrease the inhibitory mechanisms of the amygdala, leading to increased aggressive behaviors and reduced fear. As a result, we might engage in riskier behaviors.

  • Hippocampus. Critical for the formation, organization, and storage of new memories, the hippocampus is involved in connecting emotions and senses (such as smell and sound) to memories. 

Alcohol can disrupt the process of forming memories, leading to "blackouts" or difficulty remembering events that occurred while we were intoxicated. Chronic alcohol consumption can even lead to shrinkage of the hippocampus, which can have long-term effects on memory and learning.

  • Thalamus. This is a relay station for most of the sensory information coming into the brain, excluding smell. It directs incoming sensory data to appropriate areas of the cortex for further processing and plays roles in consciousness and alertness.

Alcohol can interfere with the ability of the thalamus to transmit this information efficiently, leading to distorted perceptions or reduced sensory clarity.

  • Hypothalamus. The hypothalamus regulates appetite, body temperature, thirst, and the circadian rhythm and is involved in emotional regulation by controlling the hormones released by the pituitary gland.

Alcohol can interfere with these regulatory activities, leading to a disruption in body temperature (making one feel warm even in a cold environment), increased urination (due to suppression of an antidiuretic hormone), and altered appetite. It can also interfere with the hypothalamus's role in sexual arousal and performance.

Moreover, alcohol also disrupts one of the most significant roles of the hypothalamus — regulating sleep. While alcohol might make us feel drowsy and lead to faster sleep onset, it can interfere with the quality of sleep, often reducing the time spent in restorative sleep stages.

  • Cingulate gyrus. Involved in regulating emotions, processing pain, and linking behavioral outcomes to motivation, the cingulate gyrus also has roles in executive function and respiratory control. While research on alcohol's direct effects on the cingulate gyrus is not as extensive, alcohol might affect our emotional responsiveness and decision-making by interfering with it.
  • Mammillary bodies. Connected to the hippocampus, these structures play a role in memory recall. Alcohol can disrupt their functioning, contributing to the memory impairing effects it’s known to cause.
  • Fornix. This bundle of nerve fibers connects the hippocampus to other regions of the brain, especially the hypothalamus and acts as a major output tract of the hippocampus. Any disruption by alcohol to the hippocampus can subsequently affect the fornix, potentially interfering with the transmission of information related to memories.

3. The Cerebellum: Coordination HQ

The cerebellum might be smaller than other brain regions, but don't let its size fool you. It's primarily in charge of ensuring our movements are coordinated and precise. From simple actions like picking up a pen to complex activities like dancing, the cerebellum ensures we move with ease and accuracy.

When alcohol enters our system, the cerebellum is one of its targets. As alcohol affects this region, the precision and coordination we often take for granted can become compromised. 

With the cerebellum's functions disrupted, even straightforward tasks can become challenging. For instance, buttoning a shirt, tying shoelaces, or typing on a keyboard might feel more cumbersome than usual. You know that wobbly walk post-wine? It's the cerebellum voicing its grievances! This disruption can give us valuable insight into just how vital the cerebellum is in our daily lives.

4. The Medulla: Alert vs. Sleepy Mode

The medulla is situated at the base of our brain, close to where it meets the spinal cord. This structure might be small, but it’s mighty! It oversees several autonomic (involuntary) functions, including breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. It keeps vital processes running smoothly without us even having to think about it (and thank goodness for that!).

Ever felt super drowsy after a drink or two? Alcohol slows down the functions that the medulla controls, leading to drowsiness or even unconsciousness. This is why deep into a drinking session, someone might experience slowed breathing or a drop in body temperature.

Needless to say, this can be risky: given the medulla's role in vital functions, it's certainly in our interests to keep it functioning optimally. Overwhelming it with high amounts of alcohol can spell trouble!

Steps To Navigate the Brain-Alcohol Maze

Navigating the dance between our brain and alcohol doesn't have to feel like you've got two left feet. Let's explore some ways we can be more intentional about alcohol consumption in relation to the brain:

  • Knowledge is power. The more you understand your brain, the better choices you can make. Dive into more readings about the brain and its functions. Equip yourself with knowledge!
  • Mindful drinking. Pay close attention to the effects of alcohol on your behavior, emotions, and thoughts. This mindfulness can make you more aware of when to say, "I've had enough!"
  • Set limits. Before any social event, decide on your drink limit. Stick to it, regardless of peer pressure.
  • Stay hydrated. For every alcoholic drink, match it with a glass of water. This will help dilute alcohol's effects and keep you hydrated.
  • Snack wisely. Eating before or while you drink can slow down the absorption of alcohol. Opt for healthy snacks!
  • Engage in alcohol-free activities. Explore hobbies or activities where drinking isn't the main event. Maybe a movie night?
  • Seek support. If you're looking to cut back or quit, consider joining a group or seeking professional guidance. You're not alone in this — Reframe can help!

As for taking care of your brain in particular, here are some additional tips:

  • For the amygdala (emotion regulation). Documenting feelings can help in recognizing triggers and patterns in emotional responses.
  • For the hippocampus (memory and learning). Engage in puzzles, reading, or learning a new skill to keep this region active. Also, since sleep is when the brain consolidates memories, make sure to get 7-9 hours of sleep for optimal memory function.
  • For the thalamus (sensory processing). Engage in activities that stimulate multiple senses like cooking or gardening and reduce excessive caffeine, which can overstimulate the thalamus.
  • For the hypothalamus (autonomic functions). Eating a variety of nutrients can support the hypothalamus in regulating body functions. And since chronic stress can impact the hypothalamus, consider relaxation techniques like deep breathing or yoga.
  • For the cingulate gyrus (emotion and behavior regulation). Keeping a routine or engaging in structured tasks can promote healthy function, while regular exercise can help regulate mood and behavior.
  • For the mammillary bodies (recollective memory). Engage in storytelling or recounting experiences to strengthen recollective memory.
  • For the fornix (information transmission). Stay hydrated — water supports overall brain function and can aid in the smooth transmission of signals. Also, foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish or walnuts) can support neuron health and improve signal transmission.

Final Note

By now, it's clear that pretty much every corner of the brain can be affected by alcohol. However, the good news is that our brain is a dynamic organ, capable of incredible resilience and adaptability. 

Our magnificent brains are truly wonders of nature. Treating them with kindness, respect, and care is the least we can do. As you journey towards better understanding and managing alcohol's effects, remember: every step you take is a step towards better brain health and overall wellness. In the words of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, “Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.” So keep sculpting and exploring!

Summary FAQs

1. How does alcohol influence our brain's communication system?

Alcohol interacts with neurotransmitters, which are the brain's chemical messengers. It can amplify the effects of inhibitory neurotransmitters, reduce the activity of excitatory ones, and trigger a dopamine release in the brain's reward centers.

2. What role does the frontal lobe play and how is it affected by alcohol?

The frontal lobes are pivotal for decision-making, planning, and impulse control. Alcohol can diminish the functioning of the frontal lobes, potentially leading to impaired judgement or riskier decisions.

3. How does alcohol impact our coordination and movement?

The cerebellum is our brain's coordination headquarters. When influenced by alcohol, our balance, posture, and overall coordination can be compromised, often leading to clumsiness or unsteady movements.

4. Can alcohol alter our emotions and memories?

Absolutely! The limbic system, our emotional control center, can be affected by alcohol, leading to heightened emotions or mood swings. Additionally, the limbic system's role in memory formation can be disrupted, sometimes resulting in fuzzy recollections or gaps in memory.

5. How do the hypothalamus and pituitary gland respond to alcohol?

These regions are vital for regulating body functions like temperature, hunger, and hormone secretion. Alcohol can disturb their typical activities, causing changes in appetite, body temperature, or even sleep patterns.

6. Is our alertness affected by alcohol?

Yes, the medulla plays a part in maintaining our alertness and consciousness. Alcohol can influence this, often leading to drowsiness or reduced levels of consciousness, which impacts our ability to respond quickly to situations.

7. If alcohol affects so many areas of the brain, why do people still consume it?

While alcohol does influence various brain regions, many factors drive its consumption, including social, cultural, and individual reasons. Understanding its effects, as outlined in this blog, empowers individuals to make informed decisions about their drinking habits.

Heal Your Brain and Your Life 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.

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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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