7 Brain Health Reasons for Breaking Up With Alcohol
Have you ever had a relationship with a bad boyfriend or girlfriend that was full of excitement, but proved more destructive than healthy?
For certain people, alcohol is like a bad boyfriend or girlfriend.
Initially, you may find it very exciting to drink. It makes you feel good (alcohol increases the feel-good neurochemical dopamine). Your troubles and worries fade. You feel more confident, affectionate, and less inhibited.
But then you drink more, hoping to keep the good feelings going. You may drink too much and say or do things you later regret. It may get you into trouble. You may feel terrible mentally and physically the following day.
Indeed, the momentary good feelings of consuming alcohol come at price. In addition to compromising brain function, alcohol consumption is linked with more than 60 health conditions, including liver problems, unhealthy blood pressure, digestive issues, low mood, and more.
There’s a reason the World Health Organization and American Cancer Society recommend not drinking any alcohol at all!
On a brighter note, a growing number of people who are uncomfortable with their drinking or just want to feel healthier are breaking up with alcohol…and you can too.
Dry January – a month of abstaining from alcohol after the holidays – is already in full swing. And more people are jumping on the bandwagon. Last year, an estimated 15% of U.S. adults participated in Dry January.
Of course, you can break up with alcohol at any time, and it can be for longer than a month!
Here’s why cutting ties with alcohol may be the best thing you can do for your health.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?
It’s hard to love your brain and habitually consume alcohol. The negative impacts of regular alcohol consumption on brain function are, excuse the pun, sobering.
Alcohol can compromise your decision-making, slow your reactions, impact your memory, shrink your brain volume, stifle neurogenesis, disrupt brain-restorative sleep, and more. If you suffer from a mental health condition, regular drinking can make it even worse over time.
Let’s take a closer look at what research shows.
7 Ways Alcohol Can Hurt Your Brain
- Reduces Brain Blood Flow – Your brain uses 20% of the blood flow in your body. Healthy cerebral blood flow is critical to healthy brain function. Brain SPECT imaging has shown lower overall blood flow to the brain in those who regularly consume alcohol. This can lead to problems with concentration, mental fog, impulsivity, poor decision-making, and more.
- Shrinks Overall Brain Volume – It isn’t just heavy drinking that harms your brain. Even moderate drinking (1-7 alcoholic beverages a week) is associated with reduced total brain volume in men and women in early middle-age, a 2020 study found. Another study showed that the more you drink, the worse the shrinkage can get.
- Damages Hippocampus and Prefrontal Cortex – Your hippocampus is an area of the brain that affects learning, memory, and mood. A 30-year study following more than 500 men and women showed that drinking just 1-2 glasses of wine a day is associated with atrophy of this vital brain region. Additionally, a review of animal research suggests that long-term heavy drinking damages the prefrontal cortex (involved in decision-making, impulse control, planning, and follow-through), some of which may reverse with abstinence.
- Inhibits the Creation of Brain Cells – Animal research has revealed alcohol consumption is associated with a dramatic 58% decline in the formation of new brain cells. Of the new cells that form, the research showed a 63% decline in survival rate.
- Increases Risk of Memory Loss – In light of all the mentioned impacts to brain function, it isn’t surprising that compared with non-drinkers and light drinkers, moderate to heavy drinkers have a 57% higher risk of memory loss.
- Increases Risk of Mental Health Problems – While a little alcohol can help calm the nerves, studies indicate it tends to worsen mental health eventually. That’s because consistent heavy drinking alters a number of brain chemicals that play a critical role in overall mental wellness. Alcohol abuse can lead to a myriad of mental health issues including persistent feelings of anxiousness, low mood, emotional trauma, and attention issues.
- Increases Risk of Brain Injury – Even moderate drinking can impact your reaction time, balance, sound judgement, ability to focus visually, and overall behavior. It’s no wonder drinking alcohol is associated with a greater risk of serious accidents, including risk of head injuries.
Benefits of Not Drinking Alcohol
Enough of the bad news about alcohol!
Here’s the great news: Participants in Dry January enjoyed many health benefits from taking a break from alcohol.
A follow-up study from the University of Sussex found significant benefits for brain/mental health. It showed that 93% of participants gained a sense of achievement, 71% reported improved sleep, and 57% noticed better concentration. A full 70% of participants reported improved general health.
Participants also reported having more energy, weight loss, improved skin, and even saving money. What’s more, a remarkable 71% discovered they didn’t need to drink to enjoy themselves, and seven months later, participants continued to drink less alcohol – even participants who failed to abstain completely.
Tips for Breaking Up with Alcohol
Just like you can leave a destructive relationship, you can take a break from alcohol. The following tips are for people who want to drink less and feel their best. If you’re a heavy drinker, consult a medical doctor before making changes to your alcohol consumption.
- Find a Healthy Substitute Drink. Enjoy soda water with lime or fruity sparkling water.
- Create a Support Network. Enlist friends and family who want to support you in taking a break from alcohol and who will hold you accountable.
- Avoid Social Settings Centered Around Drinking Alcohol. Avoid situations with heavy drinking, if possible, or plan to take diligent care of yourself. For instance, you can volunteer to be the designated driver or step outside to call one of your support people.
- Be Mindful. Write or meditate and be present for what comes up around abstaining from alcohol. Seek professional support if needed.
Remember, you don’t need alcohol to be healthy, but you can boost your brain and body health by cutting back or not drinking at all.
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