What the Latest Research Says About Alcohol and Your Brain

Alcohol can come in a frosty mug or a tall sophisticated goblet. It can be garnished with a little umbrella or colorful chunks of fruit skewered on a tiny plastic sword. A drink can arrive with a couple of clinking ice cubes or straight up in a shot glass.

While there’s no doubt drinking can be festive, when you get right down to it, is it good for you or not?

You often see headlines with this or that new study claiming alcohol is the next best thing for your heart or that it’s bad news period advising you to tee-total it.

With so many conflicting reports, it can be hard to decide what to believe.

Beer and Your Brain

A study published in 2014 found xanthohumol, a flavonoid found in beer, had some beneficial effects — specifically, it was found to improve cognitive flexibility in the young mice used as test subjects. The mice were able to learn the solution to a maze more easily and retain that information for later use.

However, the cognitive benefits didn’t spread to the older mice participating in the trial. They didn’t show any extra cognitive flexibility.

Additionally, the dosage given to the mice would be impossible to replicate in humans by simply drinking beer. Anyone looking to try to improve their cognitive flexibility with a dose of xanthohumol would have to drink roughly 2,000 liters of beer a day, which would most likely lead to alcohol poisoning and death.

While this finding does suggest that these flavonoids be studied further, perhaps as a treatment option for Alzheimer’s or dementia, they would need to either be synthesized or extracted from the beer and concentrated to be a feasible treatment option.

Red Wine and Resveratrol’s Impact on the Brain

Red wine has frequently been praised because of its potential health benefits. A chemical in the wine, known as resveratrol, has been touted as a solution to aging — a glass of red wine every day was thought to improve heart health and even extend life.

This belief has been well-publicized for the last decade.  However, a piece of information not as well known is that the doctor who completed the research was found guilty of 145 instances of falsifying data.

Similar to the beer flavonoid study, the dosage of red wine needed to achieve the advertised benefits of resveratrol would be impossible to achieve. A 150-pound individual would have to consume anywhere between 750 and 1,500 bottles of red wine every single day to enjoy the health claims.

This isn’t to suggest that there are no benefits to resveratrol. The mice who received large doses of the chemical did indeed live healthier and longer lives, but there is simply no way to get the same benefits by just drinking red wine. A concentrated resveratrol supplement would be the only way to get the advantages discovered in these trials.

Alcohol and Cognitive Changes in Behavior

Almost everyone is familiar with the cognitive changes caused by imbibing alcohol. You’ve probably seen it when you’ve gone to a bar or had a few drinks with friends. Alcohol can:

  • Reduce inhibitions
  • Slow reaction times
  • Even result in abnormal thinking

Alcohol can also worsen an underlying mental health condition whether it has been diagnosed or not. A dual diagnosis, where an individual is diagnosed with both a substance abuse disorder and a mental illness, is common. Many people diagnosed with a mental illness choose to self-medicate with alcohol or other similar substances.

Alcohol has a direct and in many cases negative effect on the brain and the behavior of the affected individual and can lead to risky behaviors, poor decision making, and, in some cases, the abuse of other drugs.  This can be one of the more dangerous effects of alcohol on the brain. With approximately 1 out of every 5 Americans experiencing a mental disorder at some point in their lives, alcohol amplifying this chance is a serious risk.

Does Alcohol Benefit Your Brain at All?

With all of the studies coming to the attention of the public, the question still remains — is alcohol good for your brain?

When it comes to these adult beverages, professionals say alcohol is alcohol, regardless of how you drink it. Alcohol affects each person differently, depending on their tolerance, age, gender and body type. Women are advised not to consume as much alcohol as men, for example, because individuals with a higher body mass index are better able to process large amounts of alcohol.

There are potential benefits. As indicated before, the resveratrol in red wine and the newly discovered flavonoid in beer show promise, but to obtain the benefits that have been observed in mice, you would need to consume more alcohol than the human body can safely process.

You’ve probably heard that alcohol kills brain cells,  That’s a myth. While excessive drinking can damage the brain, it’s not from cell death. In order for alcohol to kill brain cells, it would have to kill the person drinking it.

Marrying Caution With Alcohol Use

With conflicting studies coming out back-to-back, it’s difficult to tell whether you should have that glass of wine with dinner or not. According to one Harvard article:

More than 100 prospective studies show an inverse association between moderate drinking and risk of heart attack, ischemic (clot-caused) stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes. The effect is fairly consistent, corresponding to a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction in risk.

Science also announced that moderate drinking had some brain benefits. Then, a meta-analysis concluded that moderate drinking has no health benefits at all.  A new study published just a month ago warns that even moderate drinking causes “hippocampal atrophy” resulting in cognitive decline.

The bottom line is that alcohol impacts everyone differently and has different effects on different diseases. The new findings don’t mean you can’t enjoy a glass of wine or a beer. However, they do mean that you wouldn’t want to drink alcohol solely for the purposes of getting health benefits. If you do decide to drink, follow the USDA dietary guidelines for alcohol consumption, drink sensibly, and in moderation.

Helpful research in the future may focus less on the issue of whether or not alcohol is good for the brain and more on how to take those beneficial flavonoids and resveratrol out of the alcoholic beverages and deliver them in a viable form that has advantages for generations to come.

Kayla Matthews writes about wellness, productivity and stress in the modern world for websites like MakeUseOf, BioMed Central and The Huffington Post. To read more posts from Kayla, subscribe to her blog, Productivity Theory.

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8 Comments

  1. I’m getting the distinct impression from these research studies that alcohol is not so good for the brain or body. I rarely drink so it’s not a concern for me, but I’m very glad to have this information. Thank you!

    • Hi Sandra,

      Thanks for reading! Rarely drinking is certainly the best course of action to take. I thought both sides of this were really interesting.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Kayla

  2. Hi Kayla,

    You present good information here about the effects of alcohol on the brain. Moderation, of course, is key. With the conflicting evidence, it does make a person pause before having a glass of wine with dinner, or any alcohol for that matter. Thank you!

    • Hi Cathy,

      Thanks so much for the compliment. I really appreciate it! And yes, it certainly makes me think twice about what I decide to order with my meals.

      Thanks for reading!

      Kayla

  3. Interesting article. Of course the French seem to be extremely well on red wine and it’s interesting to see both sides of the research coin. I haven’t had alcohol in many a long year, since even a glass of wine stopped loving me some time ago! I suppose like most things, everything in moderation and thankfully for me, I can think of many more things to turn to that offer real health benefits.

  4. Interesting article. Of course the French seem to be extremely well on red wine and it’s interesting to see both sides of the research coin.
    i love the your work.

    • Thank you. Yes, I don’t think there is one answer for everyone here. It has to be about each person making up their mind what is best for them.

  5. I’m not an alcohol drinker at all. Have never been…so not worried personally..but I am going to pass this info on to those who advocate for it.
    xoxo, Z~

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