How Alcohol Changes Your Brain
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How Alcohol Changes Your Brain

From Live Science with Dr. Mercola

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Many know that studies have suggested that alcohol in moderation may promote heart health, and even ward off diabetes and dementia. But fewer people know that no study has ever proved a causal relationship between moderate drinking and lower risk of death, only that the two often go together.

In other words, it is just as likely that moderate drinking is just something healthy people tend to do, not something that makes people healthy.

Dr. Tim Naimi, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that, "The bottom line is there has not been a single study done on moderate alcohol consumption and mortality outcomes that is a 'gold standard' kind of study -- the kind of randomized controlled clinical trial that we would be required to have in order to approve a new pharmaceutical agent."

Alcohol has been tied to breast cancer, can lead to accidents even when consumed in small amounts, and is linked with liver disease, cancers, heart damage and strokes when consumed in larger amounts.

Some of the WEAKEST science we have is epidemiological observations, and that is precisely the type of science that has been used to support that drinking wine in moderation is healthy for you.

Additionally, to examine the effects of alcohol on the brain, researchers examined eight men and seven women who drank alcohol through a straw while lying in an MRI scanner.

Only 6 minutes after consuming an amount of alcohol equivalent to three beers, changes had already taken place in their brain cells, Live Science reports. Their brains began to run on the sugar in alcohol instead of glucose, the normal brain food.

The concentration of substances such as creatine, which protects brain cells, also decreased as the concentration of alcohol increased. Choline, a component of cell membranes, was also reduced. This probably means that alcohol triggers changes in the composition of cell membranes.

Sources:

New York Times June 15, 2009
Live Science June 15, 2009
Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism May 2009; 29(5):891-902

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

I'm sure you've heard that alcohol can be beneficial when consumed in low to moderate quantities (about 1-3 standard glasses of alcohol per day), but there are thousands of studies on alcohol consumption and its effects on your health, and researchers still can't prove that moderate drinking leads to a longer, healthier life.

What they have found, however, is plenty of evidence showing structural damage in your brain as well as other detrimental effects, even when consumed in small quantities.

I think that is far more telling than anything else. It's hard to imagine any significant health benefit that could outweigh its destructive influence on your brain.

Although some research points to the possibility that moderate alcohol consumption may actually reduce your risk of dementia, numerous studies clearly indicate that alcohol consumption causes too many directly negative neurological complications to say that it has any real benefit.

How Alcohol Damages Your Brain

In the study mentioned above, researchers discovered that creatine and choline concentrations in your brain decrease as the concentration of alcohol increases. Creatine is involved in energy metabolism and protects your brain cells, and choline is a component of your cell membranes.

Researcher Armin Biller said,

"That probably indicates that alcohol triggers changes in the composition of cell membranes.

Our follow-ups on the next day showed that the shifts in brain metabolites after moderate consumption of alcohol by healthy persons are completely reversible. However, we assume that the brain's ability to recover from the effect of alcohol decreases or is eliminated as the consumption of alcohol increases.

The acute effects demonstrated in our study could possibly form the basis for the permanent brain damage that is known to occur in alcoholics. "

Another recent study published in the April issue of Human Psychopharmacology addresses the chronic effects of low to moderate alcohol consumption on the structural and functional properties of your brain.

Using Magnetic Resonance Induction (MRI) studies, they found a linear negative effect of alcohol consumption on brain volume. They concluded that the brain shrinkage reported as a result of low to moderate alcohol consumption offers more support for the contention that alcohol is, overall, more detrimental than beneficial to your brain health and cognition.

Yet another study published in the March/April issue of Alcohol & Alcoholism adds to the most recent lineup of studies linking regular alcohol consumption with various forms of brain damage.

In that study the researchers concluded that:

"Even heavy social drinkers who have no specific neurological or hepatic problems show signs of regional brain damage and cognitive dysfunction.

Changes are more severe and other brain regions are damaged in patients who have additional vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome)."

Other Health Hazards of Alcohol Consumption

My position is that it's never a good idea to drink alcohol.

After all, alcohol is a neurotoxin -- it can poison your brain. Even moderate amounts of alcohol are not recommended, because alcohol can also:

  • Make you more vulnerable to various preventable cancers
  • Harm your body's delicate hormonal balance
  • Cause liver damage

It goes without saying that alcohol should be entirely avoided during pregnancy as it can cause severe damage to your unborn child.

In addition, alcohol consumption has also been found to blunt the responsiveness of your hypothalamus to immune- and other non-immune signals. An impaired physical stress response is believed to affect several body systems, including your immune system's ability to fight infection, and, again, can hinder your brain cells' ability to learn and remember.

What About Red Wine?

Red wine is often cited as being a good source of resveratrol, a potent antioxidant that has been shown to increase lifespan in a manner similar to calorie restriction. But what is frequently overlooked is the fact that there are many other, far safer sources of resveratrol.

For example, instead of red wine, you can use a grape seed supplement such as Purple Defense. Because although resveratrol is found in grapes, it is likely that there are other accessory micronutrients and trace elements that enhance resveratrol's benefits, so taking the entire whole unprocessed food (minus the carbohydrate loaded sweet pulp) will give you the most benefit.

Resveratrol is also found in raspberries, mulberries and peanuts.

Other potent sources of antioxidants include grape pomace, blueberries, and green tea.

Red wine is definitely NOT your best source of antioxidants, as some studies would suggest. There are major benefits to consuming the bioflavanoids that are present in grape seeds and grape skins, but NOT in the alcohol caused by fermenting the sugar in the grape pulp.

Consuming large amounts of wine will also increase your insulin levels, which will eventually have a negative impact on your health.

How to REALLY Boost Your Brain Health

Drinking alcohol to reduce your risk of heart disease or dementia is clearly not your best option.

Heart disease, for example, is actually fairly easy to prevent by implementing simple lifestyle changes, which I've discussed at length in previous articles.

And as for fighting age-related cognitive decline, there are far healthier, safer, and proven ways to stay mentally sharp into old age. Here are a few of my most effective strategies:

  • Eat a nutritious diet, paying particular attention to avoiding sugar and consuming plenty of vegetables
  • Eat plenty of high-quality omega-3 fats
  • Avoid most fish and remove mercury from your body
  • Avoid aluminum found in drinking water, antiperspirants, cookware, etc.
  • Exercise regularly
  • Challenge your mind with activities such as traveling, learning to play an instrument or doing crossword puzzles
  • Try Purple Defense, an all-natural supplement made from muscadine grape seeds; natures number one source for resveratrol, which can cross your blood-brain barrier to help protect brain cells

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