Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain: How Booze Works On Your Brain


Alcohol can seem like a fun way to unwind, but having too much on a regular basis or binge drinking intermittently can mess with your mind. Quite literally. Your brain runs on a fine balance of inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmission or messaging. Alcohol consumption disrupts this balance of neurotransmitter activity and throws your mind and body off balance – causing all kinds of symptoms that we simply dub as “being drunk.”1 Take a closer look at what actually happens when you drink and how that affects your brain.

Immediate Effects Of Intake Are Pleasurable

When you first drink alcohol, it affects the dopamine site or “reward center” in your brain. Your system releases more dopamine, giving you the pleasurable sensation you associate with drinking. As a result, you may want to keep drinking to feel more of this sensation, to stimulate further dopamine release.2 People also report feeling more inclined to extroversion. Tension, fatigue, and the blues may also seem to decrease. Which is why people drink to unwind or loosen up. This, in turn, can reinforce alcohol-seeking behavior.3


Moves From A Stimulant To A Depressant For Your Brain

The alcohol entering your system acts like a stimulant initially but this soon takes a turn for the worse. The excitatory effects on the brain cause trouble with concentrating or thinking, slow reactions, memory problems, reduced inhibitions, mood swings/extremes of emotion, and blackouts.4 And as the blood alcohol concentrations start dropping, the fatigue hits you as do feelings of depression. After a point, alcohol becomes a sedative as the drinking tapers off.5

Here’s a closer look at what effect alcohol has on different aspects of brain function.


1. Slurred Speech, Numbed Senses, And Confusion

Alcohol inhibits brain and central nervous system functions that are responsible for things like speech. It alters the action of two neurotransmitters in your brain that form the messaging system between nerve cells. It also slows down the activity of nerve pathways.6

The result? Your speech is slurred and you find it hard to walk properly. You become lethargic and sluggish and drowsy. Your senses are numbed. The attendant confusion and issues with thinking are also signs of this effect of alcohol on your brain.7


2. Impaired Coordination And Slow Reflexes

As the alcohol enters your bloodstream, it begins to affect your brain and thought process, which in turns causes those more visible behavioral and body changes, say, making you unsteady or off balance on your feet.

It can also slow down your reflexes because of delayed impulses. It is this precise effect that has led to countries having legal alcohol limits if you plan to drive. In the UK and the US, this is 80 mg alcohol per 100ml of blood or the equivalent of 0.08 percent blood concentration of alcohol.8


3. Weakened Decision-Making Ability

Drinking can also affect your ability to make good decisions – which is why some of the biggest regrets after a night of binge drinking revolve around poor decisions or impulsive actions. These can have a much far-reaching impact on your life and relationships. You may end up doing dangerous things like walking back alone through a deserted area, driving under the influence, going home or hitching a ride with strangers, having a one night stand, or getting into a brawl.9

Why does this happen? It is believed to be a result of the reduced activity in the part of your brain that is responsible for rational thought and decision making (the prefrontal and temporal cortex).10


4. Blackouts With Partial Or Complete Memory Loss: When You Drink Too Much, Too Fast

Alcohol can interfere with your brain’s ability to create new long-term memories. It doesn’t affect your old and already established long-term memories or your immediate short-term memory. When you have a large amount of alcohol – especially if it is on an empty stomach and consumed very rapidly – you may run the risk of having a blackout. This kind of memory lapse means you lose partial memory (fragmentary blackout) or even complete memory (en-bloc blackout) of events that occurred for a period after the heavy alcohol intake. The blackout could last a few hours or may run for as much as 3 days.

When you consume small to moderate levels of alcohol that keep your blood alcohol concentration below 0.15 percent, your memory impairment will also usually be small to moderate. The more you drink, the worse the memory impairment gets. Blood alcohol concentrations that result in blackouts are usually around 0.20 percent but could result from levels as low as 0.14 percent.11


This impact on the brain from “acute intoxication” isn’t restricted just to alcoholics or those with a dependency issue. One study of college undergraduates found that 51 percent of all those who had ever drunk alcohol had at some point experienced a blackout.12

5. Increased Tolerance Levels With Long-Term Alcohol Consumption

As you drink more regularly, your brain develops a tolerance for the alcohol. Which means you now need to drink progressively higher amounts of alcohol to get the effect you desire from your brain function – whether that is the feeling of relaxation or easing of fatigue or pleasure.13


6. Impaired Cognitive Function From Continual Drinking

If you are recreational user or someone who drinks occasionally, you will typically not have any long-lasting negative impact from your drinking. But if you have indulged in long-term heavy intake of alcohol, you may experience cognitive impairment that causes difficulty with processing information, impaired problem-solving ability, and issues with learning anything new. This happens because the alcohol causes your brain tissue to waste away. Scar tissue may also develop in your brain, interfering with its normal function. You could develop vitamin deficiencies which further hamper brain function.

The good news is that much of this impairment of cognitive function is reversible if you stay off alcohol completely for 3 months or more. But if you have been abusing alcohol for a long time, the damage may well be permanent.14

7. Brain Disorder Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome From Alcohol Abuse

An estimated 80 percent of chronic alcohol users develop a thiamine deficiency and some of this group go on to develop a brain disorder called the Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome. This is marked by paralysis of the nerves of your eye nerves, impaired muscle coordination, persistent cognitive and memory-related problems, and confusion.15 Drinking more than 15 drinks a week if you are male and 8 drinks or more if you are female, on a regular basis, would mean you are a heavy drinker and at risk of the problem.16

8. Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol On The Developing Brain

When children or teenagers consume alcohol, the effects can be even more damaging. In fact, it is estimated that the average adult would have to drink twice as much alcohol as an adolescent to cause the same level of damage as anyone under 21.17 Alcohol has the ability to impair brain development, hampering their problem-solving skills, memory, decision-making skills, reasoning ability, mental health, mood, and performance at school.18

So how much alcohol can cause problems to the developing brain? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to this question, which is why the rule of thumb is to avoid any kind of alcohol intake if you are under 18 years old and delay drinking for as long as possible after that.19

9. Withdrawal Symptoms From Abrupt Reduction Of Alcohol

When someone who has been drinking heavily and regularly suddenly stops drinking alcohol, it is normal to expect withdrawal symptoms. This may include tremors, hallucinations, seizures, agitation, confusion, and insomnia. This happens when hyperactive brain mechanisms, amped up to compensate for the inhibitory effects of alcohol, are no longer held in balance by the depressant effect of alcohol. You may even experience brain damage if you constantly swing between consuming alcohol and abstinence, as is the case with binge drinking.20

Low-Level Alcohol Intake May Also Have Risks

While there are some broad guidelines on what is considered low-risk alcohol intake, this may vary from person to person. And even this low level of intake is not without side effects or temporary impairments or dulling of the brain’s activity. However, it is unlikely to cause serious or long-term effects.21

Men need to stick to no more than 4 alcoholic drinks a day and a maximum of 14 drinks over the week. Women must consume under 3 drinks a day and keep the upper level of intake to 7 across the week. Women typically begin to have adverse alcohol linked health effects at lower alcohol intake levels than men. This is likely due to the fact that women tend to weigh less than men so the same level of alcohol has less place to go to. Also, women have lower water content than do men. So your blood alcohol concentration will usually rise faster if you’re a woman for the same quantity of alcohol drunk as a man.

Also keep in mind that alcohol concentration of each type of drink is different. Here’s what counts as 1 drink:22

  • 12 fl oz of regular beer (5% alcohol)
  • 5 fl oz of table wine (12% alcohol)
  • 2-3 fl oz of cordial, liqueur, or aperitif (24% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of 80-proof distilled spirits like whiskey, rum, vodka, tequila, or gin (40% alcohol)

Since alcohol does affect your brain even in small amounts, it is best to not drink any at all if you are underage, pregnant, plan to drive, operate machinery/heavy equipment at work or home, have a medical condition that’s worsened by drinking, or take medications that could interact with the alcohol.23

Your Doubts Answered

1.  How Can Mindfulness/Meditation Build Your Willpower To Avoid Overindulging In Food And Alcohol?

[expert_opinion expertname=’paulsugar’ opinion=”The unfortunate reality in our culture today is that there is a larger number of us who are more overweight than ever before in addition to a growing dependency on alcohol. There is a general consensus that people overindulge in an effort to satisfy some emotional need. In the end, many of us use food and alcohol to provide the emotional comfort that we are craving from a perceived lack of satisfaction from our lives. Stress is the usual suspect in creating this kind of coping behavior to compensate for something we feel we lack emotionally. Mindfulness is well known for reducing stress but specifically how does it address our ability to stop overindulging successfully? At the root of our emotional stress is the fight, freeze or flight response. It is the way we are hard-wired to successfully survive. When we go into fight, freeze or flight we do so because we feel as though our survival is at stake. There are many physical, mental and emotional changes that take place during this experience, all designed to help us survive. This is a very positive genetic advantage that we have and it serves us well unless we end up prolonging the experience. Science has confirmed that many of us prolong or get stuck in fight, freeze or flight sometimes for years. This creates many problems but the overriding problem is our belief that our survival is constantly being threatened on some level. In most cases, of course, it is not. It is simply the message the body is giving us when we are stuck in the survival mode. Unfortunately, when we are stuck in survival mode no amount of food and alcohol will be enough to satisfy that fear …. so we just keep eating and drinking. The good news about mindfulness is that it is known to take us out of the survival mode which allows the body to get rid of the fear of surviving and return us to a balanced lifestyle which includes eating when we are actually hungry and drinking for the enjoyment and not to satisfy the perceived emotional need to survive. Once that fear goes away we can return to having a healthy relationship with our food and alcohol and can successfully break the roller coaster of overindulging.”]