Alcohol has a love/hate relationship with your brain.

Alcohol has a love/hate relationship with your brain.

Alcohol has a love/hate relationship with your brain.


Alcohol and the Brain: It’s Complicated


Controversy continues to swirl around the topic of alcohol and your brain; whether moderate alcohol use is of benefit or detriment to the brain.


People have been drinking fermented beverages for ten thousand years. Throughout the ages some have viewed alcohol as medicine and others have called it poison. When it comes to alcohol and your brain, the truth is not so simple. Alcohol can be either, neither or both.


What is moderate alcohol use?


There is no respected medical authority who believes that drinking in excess is anything other than awful for your brain. So when we talk about any potential brain benefits that might accrue from alcohol, we mean ‘enjoying responsibly’ with no more than moderate drinking. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.


Many studies have demonstrated that one drink of  beer, red wine or hard liquor may confer health benefits. However, there is no question that alcohol use in excess of the dietary guidelines is detrimental to your health. The positive effects of alcohol on biological markers disappear with more than two drinks.


Alcohol Con


I doubt there is a need to sell anyone on pouring themselves a nice scotch. So, let’s start with the case against alcohol.


First and foremost, a study published in a prestigious medical journal considered the effect of alcohol on more than 500 people in 195 countries over 30 years. They reported that compared with abstinence, moderate alcohol intake was associated with increased risk of adverse brain outcomes and steeper cognitive decline, especially in language function. They also discovered that the hippocampus of the brain is particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol. They found no beneficial effect to any quantity of alcohol, regardless of how much or little.


The Chief Medical Officer of the UK concluded that there is “no safe level of alcohol consumption.”


Another group of scientists reported that drinking alcohol during adolescence is related to accelerated atrophy (wasting away) in gray matter (the thinking part) of the brain during adulthood. Those teens who were found to be binge drinkers (drinking until they blacked out) had the worst brain issues and were also most likely to abuse  alcohol later in life. The parts of the brain found to be most affected were the left posterior temporal cortex (language function) and the left prefrontal cortex (executive functions).


It has also been reported that alcohol usage may be especially detrimental to a brain that had been injured in the past. Even after recovery from a brain injury (TBI), a person’s brain remains sensitive to alcohol. People in the TBI population who drink to excess report increased possibility of repeated brain injury, worsened cognitive (thinking) problems, and an increased risk of psychiatric issues (like depression).


Alcohol Pro


Some doctors have gone so far as to recommend that people drink one small glass of wine a day to benefit brain health. I would not go that far, but I do think that alcohol, if enjoyed in moderation, has demonstrated brain health benefits.


Scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center  in New York found that drinking the equivalent to around 2.5 alcoholic drinks (any alcohol, not just wine) per day may reduce brain inflammation. 




Red wine is known to contain resveratrol. This chemical has been shown to lower the level of cyclic adenosine monophosphate, a molecule that affects cell division, migration and death. This may explain the reduction of depression that researchers have found in red wine drinkers (limited to one or two glasses of wine a day). This knowledge may be useful to develop more effective antidepressants in the future.




When sympathetic nerves are activated, blood vessels may constrict. This may lead to stroke. Alcohol alters the activation of these nerves and relaxes the blood vessels. This allows sufficient blood to reach the brain. Moderate alcohol use has been found to be protective against stroke.




In a Harvard study of thousands of people, scientists determined that moderate alcohol use may protect the brain from dementia. Compared with abstention, between one and six drinks per week decreased the risk of developing both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.


Alcohol may enhance the brain’s ability to remove waste products from the brain. Waste products include beta-amyloid and tau proteins, the accumulation of which are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

One group of researchers discovered that beer, in moderation, may help prevent neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s disease. The scientists determined that hops and silicon in beer may protect your brain against toxic effects of aluminum.




Moderate alcohol use has been reported to alleviate anxiety. This occurs due to boosted blood circulation and oxygenation, lowering heart rate and alleviating anxiety.


Is red wine better than other types of alcohol?


Some believe that the health benefits of alcohol are derived from polyphenols, such as resveratrol. Polyphenols are not limited to red wine. They can be found in many foods, such as dark chocolate, the skin of grapes, pomegranate and plums.


However, other researchers believe that red wine is no better than beer or other types of alcohol. Scientists have demonstrated virtually identical effects of red wine and alcohol on several specific markers of beneficial health effects. 




Depending on the dose, alcohol may be a medicine or a poison The active ingredient in alcoholic beverages is ethanol. The effects of ethanol on the brain are complex. But it seems that when enjoyed in moderation alcohol may have a beneficial effect on brain health.