Alcohol & the Brain

It is well established that consuming large amounts of alcohol (typically defined as more than four standard drinks in one sitting) can not only cause health problems but also puts you at risk of developing alcohol dependence. As a depressant, alcohol decreases activation levels in the prefrontal and temporal cortex in your brain, which can cause you to make irrational decisions or act impulsively. In the longer term, high levels of alcohol consumption can put you at higher risk of developing disorders of the brain, such as dementia. Not only so, drinking regularly at high doses can put you at risk of developing cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis (liver disease) and even cancer.

On the other hand, the media often reports that a small amount of alcohol consumption, such as drinking a glass of red wine with dinner every evening, can actually be beneficial for you. A 2007 study by Lang, Wallace, Huppert and Melzer found that in older adults (aged 50 years or more) who drank one or two standard drinks a day exhibited better cognitive function than those who did not drink at all. Despite engaging in moderate levels of drinking, these older adults had not had problems with alcohol previously, indicating that they are likely to have had a healthy relationship with alcohol all their lives. For other individuals who find it difficult to restrict themselves to the one or two glasses per day, this finding may not apply.

In general, it is also recommended that individuals with brain or cognitive impairments avoid alcohol in large amounts – developing a chronic alcohol problem will result in worsening of the cognitive deficits. In the first place, individuals with ADHD and conduct disorder are more likely to develop substance abuse disorders later in life, likely due to their reduced ability to exert self-control and increased vulnerability to engage in impulsive behaviour.

Additionally, it is essential that children and young people below 18 years of age are not exposed to alcohol. This is important not only from a legal standpoint but also significant when considering the effects that early exposure to alcohol can have on their cognition. It has been found that teenagers who had their first drink between the ages of 11 to 14 were more likely to go on to develop alcohol dependence as an adult (DeWit, Aflad, Offord, & Ogborne, 2000).

There is a myth that if parents introduce their children to alcohol in the home ‘safely’ before they are of legal drinking age, it is more likely for their children to develop a healthier relationship with alcohol in the future. However, it has been found that this early exposure in fact is linked to more negative outcomes. The human brain only becomes fully developed in the early twenties, so even for young adults above the legal drinking age, it is advised that alcohol consumption is kept to a minimum, and binge drinking avoided.

Here are also some tips if you would like to reduce your alcohol consumption.

  1. Set a goal and stick to it. The first step to reducing your alcohol consumption is setting a goal that you can realistically achieve. Consider how frequently you are drinking right now and how much you drink in each sitting. Instead of quitting cold turkey, try to reduce consumption gradually over a few weeks or months.
  2. Switch your drinks out for nonalcoholic beverages. If it has become a habit for you to consume alcohol with your meals (especially dinner), consider switching the alcohol out for non-alcoholic options, and concentrate on the food instead of your beverage. At a social event where everyone else is consuming alcohol, having a non-alcoholic drink in hand can help you to avoid the feeling of being ‘left out’, yet allowing you to stay sober at the same time.
  3. Pace your drinking. If you are at an event where consuming alcohol is unavoidable, you can limit your consumption by pacing your drinks. Choosing a drink with a lower concentration of alcohol and sipping it slowly over the course of the event duration will help you restrict your consumption.