Many people believe they can engage in moderate drinking without much risk to their brain health, especially since alcohol is often presented as having some health benefits. However, reports of the advantages of moderate drinking may well have been exaggerated. Alcohol is a powerful toxin, and every bit of booze you drink has a profound effect on the brain.
Alcohol disturbs normal brain function by interfering with neurotransmitters. These powerful brain chemicals relay signals between nerve cells, allowing your body to function optimally. Neurotransmitters have an important role in regulating mood, movement, thinking, vital bodily processes, and behavior.
You only have to look at the slurred speech, difficulty balancing, and mood swings of a drunk person to see the evidence that alcohol affects your brain. While you may think moderate drinking doesn’t do any damage, science may suggest otherwise.
If you’re not slurring or swaying down street, it is tempting to deny the impact of alcohol on your brain. You may think you have learned to ‘hold your liquor’ if you’ve built up a tolerance to alcohol through moderate drinking.
It is true that regular drinkers may feel less drunk and incapacitated after a tipple. But research shows that drinking moderately still has an impact on judgment and brain performance — without drinkers being aware of it.
A 2013 study, carried out by the University of Waikato in New Zealand, measured driving performance at various periods of time after drinking alcohol, as well as participants’ subjective experience of how drunk they felt.
As testing went on, volunteers reported feeling like the effects of alcohol were wearing off, yet their driving and cognitive performance was significantly worse than before. This effect was shown with even a moderate level of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05.
Studies of adolescents have shown that brain structure and function can be compromised by drinking as few as 20 drinks per month, with important brain networks affected.
Moderate drinking and building tolerance are no safeguards against damage to perception, cognition and judgment. A 2008 review published in “Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology“ revealed that while you can learn to think more quickly as your tolerance builds up, you are just as likely, if not more likely, to make alcohol-related mistakes.
Further evidence shows that people who are mildly tolerant to alcohol may cope with tasks learned while intoxicated, but can be completely confused when faced with unfamiliar tasks. Just because you feel confident getting home safely from your regular bar, don’t expect to be as competent if you have a drink elsewhere.
Drinking alcohol can inhibit the production of new brain cells, according to a study published in “Neuroscience” in 2012. Lab rats exposed to moderate amounts of alcohol every day produced 40 percent fewer brain cells than a control group of teetotal rats over a two-week period.
Researchers at Rutgers University and the University of Jyvaskyla discovered the anomaly in a region of the brain associated with learning and memory. The worry is that these rats showed no impaired motor responses in the short term, highlighting the risk of moderate drinkers not taking the impact of alcohol seriously.
The researchers indicated the need for more studies to show whether moderate drinking could have an adverse effect on learning and memory in the long term.
The media often quotes statistics to ‘prove’ that people who drink moderately live longer and have healthier hearts than those who abstain, but these results could easily be interpreted differently.
Rather than alcohol (known to be a toxin) conferring some kind of miraculous health benefits, it is just as likely that people who choose to drink moderately tend to be relaxed, sociable people with healthy, balanced lifestyles — which will make you live longer.
Learning how to find balance, relax, and manage stress is more effective at protecting your health than moderate drinking. Developing your inner resources and strength is always better than relying on a bottle for stress relief or relaxation.
Featured photo credit: Dustin Gaffke via flickr.com
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