Drinking Any Amount of Alcohol Damages Your Brain

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
April 05, 2023
Drinking Any Amount of Alcohol Damages Your Brain

A shot of whiskey and even a glass of red wine kills neurons and increases your risk of dementia. Any amount of alcohol also increases your risk of most cancers.  

Your shot of whiskey and even your glass of red wine kills neurons and increases your risk of dementia, also increasing your risk of most cancers

There’s no debate that binge drinking or chronic heavy drinking damages your brain. The effect of moderate consumption has been debated.

Evidence says even light drinking isn’t OK. A study using data on 25,000 British adults (with an average age of 55) who had undergone brain scans found that even low levels of alcohol damage the brain. Another huge study, from Japan, supported previous research linking alcohol to cancer.


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Alcohol and the brain

The “UK Biobank” is the world’s largest brain imaging sample. Volunteers underwent scans at three United Kingdom medical centers over 15 years and answered questions about their alcohol consumption as part of a larger survey. The group tended to be healthier and better educated than the general British population. Almost half the volunteers reported drinking more than the current British guidelines, but few of them were heavy drinkers.

“Our findings suggest that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption for brain health,” the authors wrote, adding that people with higher blood pressure or body mass index were more at risk.

In general, less gray matter, a darker tissue in the brain, is associated with poorer cognitive powers. In the research, the more a person drank, the less gray matter they had. The impact was small but greater than the impact of smoking or any other factor tested. People who drank too much every day had dramatically less gray matter than people who never drank. Alcohol also damaged other parts of their brains, especially an area that links the two sides of the brain.

What if you only drink wine or beer? The study did not find that wine or beer are less damaging to the brain; what mattered was how much alcohol participants consumed.

Although some studies have found that drinking wine moderately is linked to longer lifespan, the study did not back up that idea. The authors suggest that earlier research simply showed that people who drink wine, who are often better educated and wealthier, enjoy better health than the general population — but despite, not because of, the wine.

Alcohol and cancer

Another especially large study, following more than 63,000 cancer cases and the same number of controls at several medical centers in Japan, also argued against the safety of moderate drinking. Any drinking increased the risk of cancer of the colon, stomach, breast, prostate, and esophagus.

Within your body, an alcoholic drink breaks down into acetaldehyde, which damages your DNA. Your genes are a kind of instruction manual for your cells. With the instruction manual damaged, your cells can begin overproducing.

With breast and prostate cancer, alcohol might be changing levels of sex hormone levels.

In the cancer study, people who downed two drinks a day or fever had a 5 percent higher risk of any kind of cancer, compared to people who didn't drink at all. The elevated risk also applied to most gastrointestinal cancer and breast and prostate cancers. For other cancers, the risk was slightly less; for esophageal cancer, it was more. 

Participants reported their drinking habits based on standard alcohol units for sake, beer, wine, and whiskey.

Over the years, all types of alcoholic drinks, including red and white wine, beer, cocktails, and liquor, have been linked with cancer. The more you drink, the higher your cancer risk.

What you can do

If you’re concerned about dementia or cancer — and especially if you’re overweight or have high blood pressure — don’t drink. When people who are dependent on alcohol quit, other research has found that some brain damage can be reversible. It’s not clear, however, whether this would also be true for moderate drinkers.


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April 05, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN