Hangover headaches aren't the biggest of your concerns. Research suggests that drinking alcohol is detrimental to the brain. CBC

To Jesica Hurst, the beginning of the weekend meant drinking a glass of wine.

Her drink of choice was for any situation that involved social anxiety, from calming prior to a night out, or to relaxing after a long job.

However, it did come with an unfortunate side effect — feeling of anxiety, sadness and stress during the days following. For someone who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety The Toronto resident started to think about the role that drinking alcohol played in her life and the implications for her mental health.

About six months back, Hurst gave up alcohol completely.

Since the time, “I’ve noticed that things have gotten more well-balanced,” she said. “I still have daily stressors… But it’s much easier to manage.”

It’s not difficult to see how an evening of drinking will cause a headache in a variety of ways, from the mental buzz that it gives immediately as well as the post-morning headaches as well as the feelings of ‘hangover that people experience after drinking a little too of booze.

Studies suggest that alcohol can adversely impact mental health or increase the chance of developing cognitive issues and dementia. However cutting back can help your brain get a boost. (Shutterstock)

What can science reveal about how alcohol can affect your brain?

Although liver problems such as heart disease, liver issues and other types of cancer are commonly discussed as possible effects of drinking regularly however, studies have also shown that alcohol can have a negative impact on mental health or raise the chance of developing cognitive issues and dementia. However cutting back -or eliminating it — can help your brain get a boost.

“We view the world through rose-colored glasses when drinking,” said Tim Stockwell an expert at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and professor at the University of Victoria.

“However this is the immediate impact. The long-term result is that, even within a couple of hours drinking alcohol, it’s a [central nervous system] depression and the uplifting effect is replaced with tiredness and stress.”

‘Abundant evidence’

There’s an increasing body of evidence of alcohol’s detrimental effects on the brain as well as the advantages of cutting it back on alcohol, according to researcher Professor Dr. Henry Kranzler, a professor of psychiatry as well as director of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“Sleep is disturbed with alcohol even small quantities of alcohol,” said the expert, adding that drinking more alcohol has been linked to depression.

A study of more than 40000 adults revealed negative connections between alcohol consumption and brain structure, even when people consume just one or two drinks per day. (CBC)

A review of medical research conducted in the latter part of 1990 suggested that even at the time, “abundant evidence” showed those suffering from anxiety and mood disorders should avoid even moderate alcohol consumption, since it “adversely impacts their course and treatment response.”

Drinking more, Stockwell says, can increase the speed and intensity of emotional emotions and mood swings.

“Anxiety is more intense and acute,” he said. “The alcohol can reduce it and ease it for a few minutes however, it bounces back stronger than ever before.”

A comprehensive report on the harms caused by alcohol released at the end of 2018 by the World Health Organization (WHO) identified alcohol as an “psychoactive substance” that affects various neural pathways and areas in the brain.

This means that the brain is affected even when people drink and may manifest as increased confidence, less inhibitions, reaction times, as well as eventually impairment that makes things like driving much more risky — and also after.

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The use of alcohol is an indicator of mental health problems and there’s an “high degree of comorbidity between severe mental disorders caused by alcohol and other drug usage conditions,” according to the WHO report. The report, based on medical research stated, shows that drinking alcohol can increase the likelihood of cognitive dysfunction depression, suicidal, or depressive thoughts.

Kranzler’s research suggests that the high level of alcohol consumption could even reflect the effects of ageing on the brain.

One of his most recent research paper, which was published in 2022 by Nature Communications, a journal Nature Communications, relied on the U.K. Biobank, which is one of the largest accessible collections with quality MRI images of the brain.

The study, which included nearly 40,000 adults examined whether light drinking could lead to the same effects on human brain structure drinking more alcohol — which is linked to changes in the brain’s white matter, increasing a person’s risk of suffering from dementia and stroke.

There were negative correlations between alcohol consumption and brain structure, even in those who consume just one or two drinks per day according to the study team the effect grew stronger when alcohol consumption increased.

“We cannot speak of causality, however it is extremely suggesting to suggest that effects from alcohol are evident in the brain’s white and grey matter and they could affect cognitive functioning,” he said.

“We observed effects of drinking that were in line with the effects one would expect to see in the aging process.”

Professor. James MacKillop, the Peter Boris Chair in Addictions Research at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an instructor of McMaster University, in his research area that’s been designed to resemble the bar. (Mark Boschler/CBC)

Benefits of cutting back

Reducing back on alcohol consumption or quitting drinking completely can reduce the negative consequences, multiple researchers have told CBC News.

“I believe, especially those who drink more than 3 or 4 drinks every day or more than that, cutting back could lead to greater mental clarity, better mood, better sleep, and they all coincide,” Kranzler said.

“When you’re asleep well your mood improves as well as your mental clarity higher. So the advantages are evident.”

Even heavy drinkers can experience brain-related benefits too as some studies have shown.

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An increasing amount of studies suggests that alcohol can cause harm to your brain and mental well-being. Many who have eliminated alcohol completely say their wellbeing is better as a result.

One study, that was published by the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism was a study of people who are “highly dependent upon alcohol” and found that those who quit drinking reported that their depression, anxiety and self-esteem had improved after six months.

However, in terms of long-term brain effects of drinking regularly it’s difficult to determine precisely how many drinks per week are connected with brain-related changes caused by alcohol Professor Dr. James MacKillop, the Peter Boris Chair in Addictions Research at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor of McMaster University.

Just cutting back could have benefits according to him, for example, having a break in Dry the month of January, February and even having an “damp” month which means a reduction in alcohol consumption because these options provide an opportunity to examine your personal habits and behaviors.

“I believe we need to think about brain health the same way as we do about any other aspect of healthfor example heart health as well as cancer risk health.” MacKillop added. “In many ways the brain is by far the most vital organ in that it defines who we are.”

Kranzler, who is a self-confessed wine enthusiast, does not advocate for everyone to be an alcoholic. In his personal life, he’s decided to reduce back in light of the years of study he has conducted into the possible long-term consequences of drinking alcohol.

“I’m extremely careful regarding how much I consume,” he said. “And I’ve stopped drinking anything other than the wines I truly would like to consume.”