I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Alcohol is not a health food! It has been implicated in a long list of serious conditions, from heart and liver diseases to cancer and depression, to name just a few. And the drinkers who are at risk aren’t only the heaviest of consumers, but anyone who drinks on a regular basis, or who occasionally goes out and “celebrates” with a few too many. Alcohol is a toxin that poisons the entire body—including the brain.
Most of us have witnessed or experienced alcohol’s effects on the brain, which cause people under the influence to act in strange ways. While our culture often makes light of common drinking side effects, like hangovers, embarrassing events, slurred speech, and lack of inhibitions, these are all results of some pretty scary stuff happening behind the scenes (that is, inside our brains). Let’s look at some of the most striking ways in which alcohol fools us into such goofy behavior—and the serious reality behind what’s taking place.The prefrontal cortex oversees crucial tasks such as controlling impulses, making judgment calls, and managing forethought and insight. But drinking interferes with this region, so it’s easy to say or do things that you’ll later regret. Click To Tweet
5 WAYS ALCOHOL AFFECTS THE BRAIN
1. You lose your fear of consequences.
The prefrontal cortex, often called the executive center of the brain, oversees crucial tasks such as controlling impulses, making judgment calls, and managing forethought and insight. But drinking interferes with activity in this region, so it’s easy to say or do things that you’ll later regret—and have less fear of, or understanding about, the natural consequences that may follow.
On top of that, your emotions can run high—whether you’re happy, sad, or angry—so you’ll feel things more strongly than if you were sober. And, when you lose track of consequences, you may be likely to drink even more, which creates a vicious (and dangerous) cycle.
2. Your brain stops making memories.
Unfortunately, many people have experienced the phenomenon of blackouts, where events of the evening are entirely obscured from the memory, as with amnesia (or brownouts, which describes this occurring in a partial way). That’s because alcohol affects the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is involved in the formation of memories.
Over years of drinking, this area is also subject to atrophy, even if you’re consuming a so-called moderate amount (think 1 or 2 glasses a day), according to a study that looked at drinkers over a 30-year period. The National Institutes of Health notes that the more you drink, and the faster you drink, the more you’re likely to experience those scary lapses in memory we call blackouts—which open the door to all kinds of additional dangers, such as sexual assault.
3. You become an imaginary love machine.
Because alcohol lowers inhibitions (see #1), some people believe it gives them a stronger libido. In addition, people usually experience a certain euphoria at the start of drinking—the result of a flow of feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins—that makes them all lovey-dovey. Sounds good, right? Not so fast. This combination creates a danger zone.
First, because your judgment isn’t operating at its peak, you’re more likely to choose a partner without thinking it through. (Nowadays, it’s practically a Hollywood comedy cliché to wake up in bed next to a stranger whose name you don’t remember and whose face you’re afraid to see.) At the same time, alcohol detracts from the sexual experience, since this substance numbs the senses, slows down sexual responses, and has been associated with sexual dysfunction. Finally, studies have long pointed out the link between alcohol and dangerous risk-taking in the bedroom, leading to outcomes like unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
4. You become an expert extrovert.
Many people use alcohol to “cut loose” and forget their inhibitions, especially in social situations or among those who experience social anxiety. We all know the drill: You have a few drinks, and suddenly you’re the life of the party, laughing it up, hitting the dance floor, talking more loudly, and acting more rambunctious. But eventually, the alcohol starts to turn on you, tripping up your feet, making you lose balance, and slurring your words.
These well-known downsides occur because your cerebellum—the part of your brain that rules things like coordination and reflexes—is impacted by drinking. In fact, studies show that drinking in excess could be associated with longer-term damage that negatively impacts balance and bodily coordination over one’s lifetime.
5. You lose your mind.
This is not an exaggeration, and it’s true in both the short and long term. For example, in the short term, people who are drinking can have a false sense of invincibility. That’s because alcohol slows activity in the basal ganglia part of the brain, which is in charge of things like creating anxiety around dangerous behavior. That’s why people who are inebriated take risks they’d never otherwise take, leading to consequences like legal troubles or brain injuries.
Alcohol also lowers blood flow to the brain, which causes effects like brain fog and poor focus and concentration. Meanwhile, over the long haul, alcohol can increase the risk of dementia, diminish brain volume, and reduce the number of brain cells formed.
RESTORING YOUR BRAIN AFTER ALCOHOL USE
Alcohol is positioned in our society as harmless, even beneficial, but this could not be further from the truth. There are plenty of ways to have a great time without drinking—and you’ll actually be able to remember it all with perfect clarity, zero regrets, and no dreadful hangxiety the next day. Many people associate alcohol with good times and carefree feelings, but the fact is that it’s a depressant. It brings you down by design.
If you’ve been a lifelong drinker, make sure to take proper care of your brain when you put down the booze for good. Brain-imaging studies have shown encouraging signs of recovery (such as increased blood flow and activity in the brain) in former drinkers, even among heavy users and abusers. In addition to stopping drinking, show your brain some extra love by eating a nutrient-dense diet, avoiding sugar (another insidious addiction for many people), limiting caffeine (it restricts blood flow), and training your brain to think more positive thoughts. With some time and effort, I promise you’ll be feeling happier—and not the short-term false “happiness” of alcohol-induced euphoria, but the kind that is healthy, authentic, and long-lasting.
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