People tend to drink alcohol to have fun and feel better. That’s why many people drink in social situations to enhance their experience. It’s even a behavioral expectation within a community, such as a sign of respect toward a superior at work.
It can also serve as a coping mechanism. It’s one of the go-to drinks to forget a painful experience, vent out feelings and frustrations that are otherwise hard to say sober, or fall asleep easier.
This article will focus on how alcohol affects the brain and how whiskey, in particular, supports brain health.
“Alcohol” is the short-term for an alcoholic beverage. It also goes by the names “alcoholic drink,” “strong drink,” “adult beverage,” or simply a “drink.” It’s categorized based on how they’re produced, as follows:
- Fermented – for example, wine and beer
- Fortified – drinks with added spirits after fermentation, usually in wines
- Liqueurs – combining spirits with spices, fruits, sugars, and cream
- Distilled – vaporizing alcohol, then cooling or condensing it
People often get confused with spirits (also referred to as hard liquor) and alcohol. They’re similar but different. All spirits, such as calvados, are alcoholic. However, not all alcoholic drinks are spirits. For example, beer is an alcoholic drink but not a spirit.
Spirits are often made via distillation. It first works with fermented liquids as a base, then separates the drinks by boiling and condensing them, increasing alcohol content. The main types of spirits are brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, and whiskey. All have a higher alcohol content than other drinks, which means they have a greater effect on the body.
Most alcoholic drinks contain ethanol. It’s a type of alcohol that acts like a drug. Specifically, acute ethanol intake from alcoholic drinks causes central nervous system (CNS) depression, leading to euphoria, slurred speech, impaired sensory, impaired judgment, impaired motor skills, and uninhibited behavior, which are all common symptoms of being drunk.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?
The CNS is made up of the brain and spinal cord. Between the two, the brain is the most affected by alcohol intoxication. It’s so delicate and intricate that it requires a “careful balance” of neurotransmitters (the body’s chemical messengers) to function properly.
However, alcohol blocks the neurons (the cells that use neurotransmitters to transmit signals within the body). This leads to common immediate symptoms of CNS depression or alcohol intoxication that were mentioned earlier.
If alcohol intake becomes long-term, the brain adapts to the blocked signals to compensate for the effects of alcohol by over-activating certain neurotransmitters. This continues even after alcohol leaves the system, which causes painful and potentially detrimental withdrawal symptoms that can hurt brain cells. This damage can be worsened by drinking binges and sudden withdrawal.
The damage of alcohol to the brain can take several forms, such as :
- Neurotoxicity – This happens when neurons overreact to neurotransmitters after being exposed to them for a long time, which causes the former to burn out. Neurons make up the pathways between various brain parts, so if they burn out, these pathways will have slow reactions. In other words, there will be a delay in people’s reactions, such as slurred speech or sluggish movements.
- Brain matter damage – Besides pathway damage, heavy alcohol use damages the brain matter (the two sides of the brain) and causes “brain shrinkage.” Specifically, it reduces the volume of gray matter (made of cell bodies) and white matter ( made of nerve fibers or cell pathways) over time.
These damages cause observable issues on:
- Verbal fluency
- Verbal learning
- Processing speed
- Working memory
- Spatial processing
Adolescents are especially susceptible to long-lasting or permanent cognitive deficits and damage since their brains are still developing. People with malnutrition, especially a vitamin B deficiency, are also at risk of these consequences.
Regardless of age, these impairments grow worse without proper treatment. For example, they can potentially develop into alcohol-related dementia or, worse, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which may result in amnesia or coma if left untreated.
However, note that these consequences will only occur if one drinks alcohol excessively. Although alcohol is a neurotoxin, several studies have shown that “moderate consumption” may provide some health benefits.
Cognitive Benefits of Whiskey
When it comes to “healthy alcoholic drinks,” wines usually come first into people’s minds. However, many other drinks can do the same, such as whiskey. In fact, an increasing number of studies show that a moderate whiskey intake can support the brain.
Here are the proven benefits of a moderate intake of whiskey:
- Maintain brain equilibrium – The plant-based antioxidants in whisky maintain a healthy chemical balance in the brain.
- Improves short-term memory retention – The same antioxidants can increase the activities of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the neurotransmitter responsible for nervous system function and memory. In other words, whiskey can help keep the mind active and aid in memory retention.
- Prolongs the onset of dementia – Those antioxidants can also reduce the risk of and even prevent developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Always drink responsibly. This means drinking alcohol moderately, typically a drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Heavy or chronic drinking, on the other hand, means three drinks per day or seven drinks per week for women and four drinks per day or 14 drinks per week for men. Avoiding excessive drinking means avoiding facing severe health consequences.