February 21, 2024/Brain & Nervous System

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Brain?

Even one drink can have an impact on your cognitive function leading to slurred speech, blurred vision and impaired memory

blurred person looking out window in background with glass of wine and bottle in foreground

You’ve had a stressful day and want to unwind with a glass of wine. Or you’re out with friends and have a few pints of beer.


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And if you have one too many alcoholic drinks, you may start to slur your speech and have trouble walking in a straight line — and that’s all before dealing with a hangover the next day.

But have you ever stopped to think: How does alcohol affect my brain?

“When you drink alcohol, it makes you a little bit more talkative. It makes you more social, makes you calmer and relaxes you. But as you drink more — and you don’t need to drink that much more — eventually, the enzymes that break down the alcohol get saturated. So, the alcohol builds up quite quickly,” explains addiction psychiatrist Akhil Anand, MD.

“Then, you start having poor muscle coordination and slurred speech. You can even start having memory issues and processing issues that can lead to a blackout, loss of consciousness, coma or even death. Yes, alcohol poisoning can kill you.”

Before you reach for your next drink, Dr. Anand explains how alcohol can affect your brain — not only in the short term, but also in the long run.

Effects of alcohol on the brain

So, how does alcohol affect your brain?

“It really depends on the individual, depending on gender (sex), age, body weight, etc. — but scientifically and theoretically, alcohol works on the brain as a relaxant,” explains Dr. Anand. “It works on a system called the GABA system. It’s a GABA-A receptor agonist, and essentially, by binding to that receptor, it relaxes the brain and makes you feel at ease.”

Can alcohol damage your brain? And does alcohol affect your brain development?

“People don’t realize this, but alcohol is neurotoxic,” he continues. “It damages your brain cells, so its short-term effects can be very dangerous. Long-term effects can also be very dangerous.”

And Dr. Anand says alcohol doesn’t just affect your GABA system.

“It’s a very promiscuous drug. It works on all these other multiple receptors in your body, and excessive use of it can be very harmful to the brain and to the mind.”

Short-term effects

If you’re just having a beer or two with buddies, how does alcohol affect you and your brain? In the short term, alcohol can affect your cognitive function and cause:

  • Slurred speech.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Lack of control.
  • Fatigue.
  • Decreased hand-and-eye coordination.
  • Slower reaction time.
  • Balance issues.
  • Impaired memory and reasoning.
  • Confusion.
  • Mood swings.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

These effects can happen even after one drink — and increase with every drink you have, states Dr. Anand.

“When I talk about acute alcohol use, the most severe form is alcohol poisoning,” he says. “But the most common is alcohol-induced blackouts when you’re binge drinking. Most people think of ‘blackout drunk’ as falling on the table and not remembering, but being blackout drunk can be subtle — like if you were drinking with a friend and you have a conversation with them and you can’t remember topics that you discuss the next day.”

Long-term effects

“Generally, over time, there have been new studies that show that chronic alcohol use — at very heavy use — can lead to brain damage, both gray and white matter. It can cause brain atrophy and shrink your brain over time,” shares Dr. Anand.

That means that long-term alcohol use can cause structural changes to your brain.

“Because alcohol causes damage to the brain — the gray matter and the white matter — it can lead to dementia,” he explains. “It can increase the chances of you developing any form of dementia. It can also increase strokes, which can also cause dementia.”

In addition to dementia, long-term alcohol use can lead to other memory disorders like Korsakoff syndrome or Wernicke’s encephalopathy.

“With Wernicke’s encephalopathy you have confusion, memory problems, gait issues, eye movement problems and you can have all kinds of other mood symptoms,” says Dr. Anand. “If you stop drinking, improve your nutrition and replace your thiamine, it can be reversible.”

Long-term effects on younger people

There’s also more of an effect on your brain and its development if you’re younger — one that can have a lasting impact.

“Specifically, when you’re younger, your brain is going through a lot of changes. Your brain is very sensitive. A huge risk factor for people who develop alcohol use disorder is early-onset drinking. So, if you drink before the age of 14, there’s about a 50% chance you’re going to develop an alcohol use disorder in your adulthood,” explains Dr. Anand.

“Early-onset drinking can have an effect on your IQ, your memory and your thought processing in your adulthood.”

The toll that frequent alcohol use can have on your body can be severe but in some cases, the damage can be reversible.

“If there hasn’t been any aggressive permanent damage, then it can be reversible,” he continues. “But certain damage may not be reversible.”


What effects does alcohol have on mental health?

While alcohol is a relaxant and can make you feel good at first, chronic alcohol use can cause mental health issues.

“Alcohol is a relaxant and also a depressive. If you drink for long periods of time, it can cause depression, and when you abruptly stop drinking, it can cause anxiety,” says Dr. Anand.

“Chronic alcohol use can even cause chronic psychosis, so you can become paranoid. You can even have auditory and visual hallucinations.”

When to seek help

Dr. Anand stresses the importance of drinking in moderation, if at all.

“Make sure you follow the guidelines: No more than two drinks a day for males, one drink a day for females,” outlines Dr. Anand. “Avoid binge drinking at all costs — five drinks in one sitting for males and four drinks in one sitting for females.”

If you think you have a problem with alcohol, don’t hesitate to talk to a healthcare provider. You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline, 24/7, 365 days a year at 1.800.662.HELP (4357).

Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition — one that can cause emotional distress and physical harm. But there’s hope.

“If you’re using alcohol to cope with stress or anxiety, if you’re going out and intending to drink one drink and you’re not able to stop yourself from drinking, it’s important to talk to your doctor and meet with a specialist,” encourages Dr. Anand.

“There are multiple treatment options, not just medications, but different therapy modalities, that can really help people with alcohol use disorder.”

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