Alcohol’s effects on memory and overall brain health can be good or bad depending on many factors. But even long-term damage can be overcome. Learn how.
Somewhere along the line, you may have heard that every drink you take destroys brain cells.
Conversely, you’ve also heard that drinking alcohol can help you live a long and healthy life, and possibly protect your brain from age-related mental decline.
So what is the truth about alcohol, the brain, and memory?
How does alcohol hurt, or help, your brain and your capacity to remember?
Let’s take a look at what the latest evidence shows.
Positive Effects of Alcohol on the Brain and Memory
There’s plenty of evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is good for your overall brain health and function as well.
It’s not exactly understood how alcohol reduces the risk of cognitive decline and memory loss, but it’s likely due to its significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Alcohol plays a positive role in the traditional diets of some of the longest-lived people on Earth.
It is regularly consumed in the three countries with the most centenarians — France, Italy, and Japan.
Regardless of what alcoholic beverage you prefer, there’s evidence that consuming alcohol in general offers health benefits, particularly when consumed with a meal. (4)
Red wine is an integral part of the daily diet in both France and Italy.
Chronic inflammation is an underlying cause of memory loss and slow mental processing as well as serious neurological diseases such as stroke and Alzheimer’s. (8)
Once consumed, red wine breaks down into metabolites that protect brain cells from dying under stressful situations. (10)
Sake, a rice-based alcoholic beverage, is a part of the traditional Japanese diet.
The people of Japan are more likely to live to be 100 than any other demographic. (11)
A cup of sake with mugwort tea is a regular nightcap of seniors who live in Okinawa, one of the world’s longevity pockets known as blue zones. (12)
Xanthohumol is a flavonoid found in hops, a main ingredient in beer, that can improve memory by stimulating the vagus nerve. (14)
The vagus nerve runs from your brain to your digestive tract and is a major facilitator of the mind-body connection.
Champagne, like red wine, is high in polyphenols.
Besides being potent antioxidants, these compounds support the hippocampus and cortex, two areas of the brain that mediate memory and learning.
One to three glasses per week may offset age-related memory loss and delay the onset of dementia. (15)
How Alcohol Protects Memory Later in Life
It seems it’s never too late to reap the benefits of alcohol for a healthier brain.
Moderate drinking throughout adulthood protects your brain from a cognitive downturn later in life. (16)
An analysis of 143 studies including more than 365,000 participants established that moderate drinkers were 23% less likely to develop signs of memory problems, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease. (17)
While red wine was slightly more beneficial than beer or spirits, most studies did not distinguish between types of alcohol.
Seniors aged 75 and older decrease their risk of dementia by up to 60% and Alzheimer’s by over 40% by continuing to drink moderately. (18)
Even seniors diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), an intermediate stage of mental decline before dementia, are less likely to develop dementia if they drink moderately. (19)
What Does “Moderate” Alcohol Consumption Mean?
What you drink — beer, wine, or champagne — doesn’t seem to be nearly as important as how and how much you drink.
Whenever you see evidence that drinking offers health benefits, you’ll almost always notice that the modifier “moderate” goes along with it.
It’s common sense that having one drink every day does not have the same effect on your brain as binge drinking seven drinks on a Saturday night. (20)
But what exactly does moderate drinking mean?
The official definition differs around the world.
In the US, the official guidelines for moderate consumption are one drink daily for women and two for men.
But these numbers are not universal.
In wine-drinking countries like France and Spain, the government guidelines are more lenient, allowing two drinks daily for women and four for men.
On the Greek island of Ikaria, people well into their nineties push the limit of moderate drinking, often having four glasses of red wine each day. (21)
You can find a complete list of alcohol consumption guidelines around the world at the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking.
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What Defines One Drink
The next question that needs answering is “what constitutes one drink?”
It’s widely accepted that 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor is considered one drink.
Why Alcohol Consumption Guidelines Differ for Men and Women
You’ll notice that the alcohol guidelines for men and women are different.
This is not just because men, on average, are larger.
Due to gender differences in hormones and enzymes, women metabolize alcohol more slowly and consequently get drunk on less alcohol. (22)
A woman absorbs roughly 30% more alcohol into her bloodstream than a man of the same weight who has consumed an equal amount of alcohol.
In addition, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reveals that women’s brains are more vulnerable to alcohol-induced damage than men’s. (23)
How Excessive Alcohol Affects the Brain
While there’s a substantial body of evidence that moderate drinking promotes health, the same can’t be said of “immoderate” drinking.
The slurred speech, glassy eyes, stumbling, fumbling, and poor judgment experienced when drunk makes it painfully obvious how significantly alcohol temporarily affects the brain.
But there is no evidence to support the myth that occasional overindulging in alcohol kills brain cells.
It’s not the brain cells themselves, it’s the dendrites — the nerve connections between brain cells — which are most affected by alcohol. (24)
Alcohol’s side effects are caused by impaired communication between brain cells which slows down the central nervous system. (25)
But the brain cells themselves are generally left unharmed unless there is long-term alcohol abuse.
- memory loss
- cognitive impairment
- impaired gait
While drinking in excess can be a problem for anyone, there are two groups most susceptible to memory loss caused by excess drinking — young adults and seniors.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Brains of Young Adults
The brains of teens and young adults, which are not fully formed until around 25 years of age, are particularly vulnerable to brain damage from excessive drinking. (28)
Unfortunately, binge drinking is a huge problem in teens and young adults.
One large study found that 44% of college students engage in binge drinking. (29)
Disturbingly, this phenomenon has now trickled down to high schools as well. (30)
Excess alcohol impairs the activity of brain receptors responsible for learning, putting young people at high risk for memory loss.
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And not all the damage is immediately evident.
Binge drinking in youth can increase the risk of memory loss later in life.
Here are the Centers for Disease Control’s definitions of binge drinking and heavy drinking: (31)
Binge drinking is defined as:
- 4 or more drinks at a time for women
- 5 or more drinks at a time for men
Heavy drinking is defined as:
- 8 or more drinks per week for women
- 15 or more drinks per week for men
How alcohol blackout causes extreme memory loss
Teens and young adults are at high risk for alcohol-induced blackout — drinking to the point of having little or no memory of blocks of time. (32)
During a blackout you may still be able to talk, party and, frighteningly, even drive a car, but what you can’t do is form new long-term memories. (33)
The morning after you may not remember last night’s party; not because you forgot, but because you never formed memories in the first place.
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Alcohol and Memory Loss in Seniors
While moderate drinking can help keep seniors mentally sharp, years of heavy drinking take their toll.
One large study of 7,000 seniors found that those who had 2.5 daily drinks (considered heavy drinking) experienced memory loss six years sooner than those who drank moderately. (34)
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Alcohol is responsible for alcohol-related dementia, the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s.
Alcohol-related dementia accounts for 10% of all dementia cases. (35)
How Chronic Alcohol Abuse Damages the Brain
People of all ages who chronically abuse alcohol can develop alcohol-related brain damage, also called alcohol-related brain impairment (ARBI).
Heavy drinkers report significantly more memory problems than light drinkers.
They are more likely to miss appointments, forget birthdays, leave appliances on, and misplace everyday items.
Another side effect of chronic alcohol abuse is malnutrition.
A deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1) can result in a neurological disorder known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE).
If caught in time, WE can be reversed with thiamine, but if left untreated, it can lead to anterograde amnesia, a neurological disorder characterized by serious memory loss. (38)
Alcohol abusers are often unrealistic about their memory loss and think their memory is much better than it actually is.
Friends and family are usually much better judges of the severity of the problem.
Overcoming Alcohol-Induced Brain Damage and Memory Loss
Nearly 30% of Americans have a problem with alcohol at some point in their lives, ranging from binge drinking to full-blown alcoholism. (39)
Excessive alcohol consumption can contribute to learning and memory problems, poor performance at school or work, and mental health problems including depression and anxiety. (40)
It can contribute to dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life.
If you suspect that your alcohol intake has impacted your memory or mental health, the obvious step is to moderate your intake or quit drinking entirely.
It’s never too late to change your drinking habits for the better.
Until recently, it was believed that alcohol-related brain damage was irreversible, but this is now known to be untrue.
The brain is remarkably resilient and can grow new brain cells and heal throughout a lifetime — a property known as neuroplasticity.
Even when alcohol abuse has altered the size, structure, and function of the brain, the damage can be reversed surprisingly fast.
After just one day of alcohol abstinence, some increase in gray matter can be detected.
After only two weeks of abstinence, the brain measurably increases in volume leading to significantly better cognitive function. (41)
Long periods of alcohol abstinence can restore even a heavy drinker’s brain to normal. (42)
However, there is more that you can do besides letting time perform its magic.
There are proactive steps you can take to speed up your brain’s recovery process.
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Replace Nutrients Depleted by Excessive Alcohol Use
When too much alcohol is consumed, nutritional status suffers.
Alcohol abuse decreases your ability to absorb nutrients, while its diuretic effect washes important nutrients away.
Substituting food for alcohol can further leave you lacking in the macronutrients protein and fat.
- water-soluble vitamins C and B complex
- fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
- minerals calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc
- essential fatty acids
If you are concerned about the effects of alcohol on your brain, shore up your nutritional status with a good multivitamin supplement along with an omega-3 or fish oil supplement.
If you are looking for something to specifically undo the damage done by too much drinking, the number one supplement you should try is milk thistle.
It has been used for thousands of years to offset the liver-damaging effects of toxins such as insect stings, snake bite, poisonous mushrooms, and too much alcohol. (45)
It can even help repair and grow new liver cells.
And of course, supplements are no substitute for a healthy diet.
Consider eating a Mediterranean-based diet. (46)
It’s not only delicious, it’s widely thought to be the healthiest eating plan of all.
It’s also a good way to prevent mental decline.
One study that followed over 2,000 seniors for years found that eating a Mediterranean diet reduced risk of Alzheimer’s by 40% . (47)
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The Effects of Red Wine and Resveratrol on the Brain
No discussion about alcohol’s effects the brain would be complete without taking a closer look at red wine, its active compound resveratrol, and the Mediterranean diet.
Which of these — or combination of these — is responsible for the reported health and cognitive benefits?
Of all alcoholic beverages, red wine by far has the greatest reputation as a healthy drink, due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
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And red wine is an integral part of the Mediterranean diet.
But there’s no reason to believe that you can isolate red wine from the rest of the Mediterranean diet and expect to get similar health benefits.
Dan Buettner is a National Geographic explorer, renowned longevity expert, and author of the bestseller The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.
According to Buettner, there are several factors responsible for the pockets of longevity and low incidences of depression and dementia found in places like Ikaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy. (48)
He concludes that it’s not red wine nor even the Mediterranean diet that makes these people the healthiest and most long-lived on the planet.
It’s their entire healthy lifestyle package — less stress, more exercise, more time spent outdoors, better social connections, and a strong purpose in life.
Are Red Wine’s Benefits Due to Resveratrol?
There are close to 1,000 different chemical compounds found in red wine and none gets more attention than resveratrol. (49)
Resveratrol first made its way into the limelight after researchers at Harvard Medical School found that it slowed aging in yeast and later found it extended the life expectancy of overweight mice. (50)
As usual, the media and supplement manufacturers jumped all over this and started promoting resveratrol as a “fountain of youth” in a bottle.
But resveratrol is only one of many health-promoting compounds in red wine.
Many scientists believe it’s the full range of polyphenols, not just resveratrol, responsible for red wine’s health benefits.
Thousands of studies have been done on resveratrol.
One small study found that resveratrol enhanced brain function, memory, and brain connectivity in overweight older adults. (60)
But the most significant human study done on resveratrol is the Chianti Study.
Nearly 800 senior men and women in the Chianti region of Italy were tracked for nine years.
Study participants ate their normal diet which is naturally high in resveratrol-rich foods, including red wine. (61)
Researchers were surprised to find no correlation between dietary resveratrol levels and the rates of heart disease, cancer, and death.
What About Resveratrol Supplements?
If you are cutting back or eliminating alcohol entirely, can you get the benefits of drinking red wine from taking a resveratrol supplement?
There is no compelling evidence that supplemental resveratrol offers any real health benefits.
Plus, there are two inherent reasons that resveratrol supplements don’t work very well.
Food Sources of Resveratrol
It’s been determined that to get therapeutic amounts of resveratrol from red wine, you’d have to drink 750 to 1,500 bottles a day! (64)
(This definitely does not qualify as “moderate drinking.”)
But fortunately, you don’t have to rely on red wine for resveratrol.
Red wine gets its resveratrol from grapes and so can you.
You can get similar benefits as drinking red wine from drinking grape juice or non-alcoholic wine, or eating grapes. (65)
The next best sources of resveratrol are cocoa powder and dark chocolate. (66)
The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain: Take the Next Step
Alcohol is a regular part of the diet of the healthiest and most long-lived people in the world.
When consumed moderately, it increases health, longevity, and brain function.
It protects the brain from age-related memory loss and mental decline, including conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
What kind of alcohol you drink is not as important as your drinking pattern.
Binge drinking is particularly hard on young brains that are not yet fully formed.
Heavy drinking causes older brains to decline years sooner.
Fortunately, it’s never too late to repair alcohol-related damage to your brain.
Support your nutritional status with a Mediterranean-style diet and a good multivitamin supplement to fill in any nutritional gaps.