What Binge Drinking Does to Your Brain

For many of us, the holiday season is a time of overindulgence. Too much sugar, TV, and alcohol. But after a month of Christmas parties, seasonal cocktails, and family festivities, he might be wondering what all this celebratory cheer is doing to his body.

Everyone deserves to let their hair down once in a while, but the throbbing in your frontal lobe after drinking too much eggnog might make you wonder, “What is this binge eating really doing to my brain?” Hmm.

Newsweek We spoke to an expert to find out.

Photo of people at a Christmas party. Many of us drink more alcohol on New Year’s Eve than on New Year’s Eve.
Monkey Business Image/Getty

What is a binge?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines heavy drinking as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women at one time. This is the most common pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States, with 1 in 6 of her US adults admitting to doing so.

Consuming large amounts of alcohol at once can be dangerous and can lead to unintended injuries and alcohol poisoning. There is a possibility.

What are the short-term effects of alcohol on the brain?

Drinking alcohol disrupts communication pathways in the brain, affecting balance, memory, speech, and judgment. “Alcohol affects so many neurotransmitters that the acute effects are very complex,” said Greg Sutherland, a neuropathologist at the University of Sydney, Australia. Newsweek.

According to Sutherland, alcohol’s main effect is as a sedative, which is due to how molecules within alcohol interact with communication pathways in the brain.

This is because the ethanol in alcohol blocks receptors in the brain that are involved in neuronal excitation, slowing brain function. At the same time, alcohol activates the receptors involved in calming us down and putting us to sleep, further slowing down our brain.

Because of this slowing down of the brain, alcohol can be considered a depressant, that is, one that reduces brain activity. One area of ​​the brain that is particularly sensitive to these effects is the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls coordination and movement. As a result, we literally get tipsy and lose our sense of balance and coordination.

Alcohol also causes our brain to release dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for the excitement you feel when you knock back the first cocktail of the night.

Henry Krantzler, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, said this effect correlated with alcohol consumption. […] more effective,” he said. Newsweek“These effects are also associated with the intensity and length of exposure to alcohol.”

He says alcohol’s effects on the brain are delayed about 40 minutes after ingestion, so it’s easy to overdose without realizing you’re already drinking too much.

man fainted at christmas party
Photo of a man who drank too much at a party.

How does alcohol affect the brain in the long term?

“It’s well established that regular heavy drinking adversely affects both brain structure and function,” says Krantzler.

In a paper published in Nature Communications In March 2022, Krantzler and his colleagues demonstrated that even moderate drinking can affect the brain. Remi Daviet, a professor at her School of Business in Wisconsin and lead author of the paper, says these influences can affect how we behave. ” He said Newsweek“Ultimately, this can affect behavior and impair cognition in the long run.”

Daviet says these effects can be made more severe if alcohol is consumed while the brain is developing. Our brains change a lot during our teenage years, making us particularly vulnerable to the neurological effects of addiction, especially when it comes to learning and memory.

The American Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults of legal drinking age drink no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. However, even this moderate consumption can affect brain structure. “We find that repeated long-term exposure to two or more small beverages per day reduces gray and white matter in the brain,” Daviet said. drinks are all associated with more damage than the previous drink.”

While gray matter contains control centers for cells in the brain, white matter contains fat extensions that extend from each brain cell and connect neurons. White matter loss can disrupt the flow of information between different parts of the brain, impairing memory, balance, and mobility.

MRI scan of the brain
MRI scan of the brain. The brain is made up of gray and white matter, both of which appear to be affected by alcohol.
mr.suphachai praserdumrongchai/Getty

Although it is difficult to confirm that the link between drinking and brain substance loss is a direct result of alcohol, Sutherland notes that there is some evidence that white matter in the brain begins to recover when individuals abstain from drinking. said.

“We are currently working on what happens to white matter,” he said. We know there is a loss of myelin, but we don’t know why.Myelin.So finding the mechanism could be very important.”

Dr. Sutherland says that the effects of alcohol on other organs, especially the liver, can also affect the brain. This is important because these toxins build up in the blood and slowly reach the brain where they can affect cognition and cause swelling.

“In some respects, the indirect effects of alcohol are probably just as bad or worse than the direct effects on the brain,” Sutherland said.

What Causes Hangxiety?

Alcohol can also affect our mood. Anxiety after heavy drinking is so common that it has its own name: “hang anxiety.”

“Alcohol consumption can increase the presence of stress hormones and interfere with sleep,” Davier said. “Both of these can affect our emotional state.”

Not everyone experiences hang anxiety, but Journal of Human Psychopharmacology In 2017, we found that 22.6% of participants reported feeling anxious during a hangover, and 34.2% reported feeling depressed.

woman with anxiety
Photo of a woman suffering from Hangshaity: Anxiety after a big night of drinking.
Antonio Guillem/Getty

People with social anxiety often report feeling anxious the morning after a night of heavy drinking, and alcohol is known to exacerbate low-level anxiety through its effects on brain chemicals. You may also feel more anxious due to dehydration and not getting enough sleep.

These effects are likely to be magnified in regular heavy drinkers, Kranzler says. and tremors.”

Is there such a thing as a “safe” amount of alcohol?

The health effects of excessive drinking are not limited to alcohol’s negative effects on the brain. Alcohol can damage your heart, liver, and immune system, and increase your risk of developing several types of cancer.

However, Daviet says that when it comes to brain damage, drinking alcohol in small amounts below the standard recommended amount does not appear to have a noticeable effect on the brain. I can’t say there is, but when it comes to brain damage, I couldn’t detect a change in drinking one five percent beer a day or one bottle of wine a week, he said.

“Once you hit and pass your two-glass daily consumption, you start to see a long-term difference.”

Do you have any health issues that concern you? Have a question about alcohol? Please let us know at health@newsweek.com. You can ask an expert for advice. your story Newsweek.


Ma H, Zhu G., The Dopamine System and Alcoholism, Shanghai Arch Psychiatry, 26 April 2014, doi: 10.3969/j.issn.1002-0829.2014.02.002.

Luo J. Effects of ethanol on the cerebellum: progress and perspectives. Cerebellum, August 2015, doi: 10.1007/s12311-015-0674-8.

Daviet R, et al., Association of alcohol consumption with gray and white matter in the UK Biobank. Nat Commu. 4 March 2022, doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-28735-5.

Smith CC, et al., Lipidomic changes in alcohol-related brain injury, J. Neuro. 26 Oct 2021, https://doi.org/10.1111/jnc.15530

National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Excessive Alcohol Use, CDC Online, Last Reviewed July 11, 2022

Lantman MS, et al., Effects of alcohol hangover symptoms on cognitive and physical function and mood, Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 27 July 2017, https://doi.org/10.1002/hup.2623

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