The 4 Effects of Alcohol on the Brain: How it Messes with Memory, Sleep, Tolerance, and Withdrawal
Have you ever wondered why alcohol messes with your brain? Sure, it may make you feel relaxed and carefree in the moment, but have you ever stopped to think about the science behind it? Just like other psychoactive drugs, alcohol binds to receptors in brain cells and causes abnormal activity. But unlike other drugs, the effects of alcohol can be more adverse and dangerous. In fact, alcohol's legality doesn't reflect the actual danger it poses - in some ways, it can be even more harmful than drugs like heroin.
1- Memory Loss
Why does alcohol make you lose memory? It all comes down to the neurotransmitters in your brain. Alcohol affects the receptors for multiple neurotransmitters, including one called glutamate. Glutamate typically excites neurons and helps them fire and wire together. But when alcohol binds to the receptors for glutamate, it reduces the effects of the body's own neurotransmitters and suppresses neural activity in the brain. This is why people feel relaxed or sedated when drinking alcohol, but it also leads to memory loss and blackouts.
2 - Sleep Disturbances
What about the way alcohol messes with your sleep? Well, it's a combination of the sedative effect from the suppression of glutamate and the way alcohol affects another neurotransmitter called GABA. GABA is responsible for inhibiting neural activity, and when alcohol binds to the receptors for GABA, it makes the neurons less active and makes you feel sleepy. But too much alcohol can also disrupt the normal sleep architecture, leading to poor sleep quality. This means that you may pass out initially and have problems to stay asleep in the second half of the night when alcohol is metabolized.
3 - Tolerance
Why do people build up a tolerance to alcohol over time? It's because the body makes adjustments to balance out the effects of the drug. The body produces more enzymes to break down the alcohol, which means less enters the brain and has milder effects. The brain also produces more NMDA receptors and fewer GABA receptors, which leads to tolerance and physical dependence.
4 - Withdrawal
Finally, why is withdrawal from alcohol so dangerous? It's because the brain has changed its structure in specific ways to accommodate the high amounts of alcohol in the system. For the regular user, the body has changed its neurophysiology. There usually is an abnormal amount of NMDA receptors and an abnormal low amount of GABA receptors. If you stop abruptly, your body needs to adjust. This withdrawal process leads to an overstimulation of the brain and can cause tremors, high blood pressure, nausea, high anxiety, hallucinations, convulsions, seizures, and even death. This is why it's important for heavy alcohol users to stop drinking under medical care and supervision.
In conclusion, alcohol is a psychoactive drug that affects the brain in a variety of ways, from altering neural activity to disrupting sleep patterns. The neural processes behind these effects are similar to those of other psychoactive drugs, as alcohol binds to the same receptors in the brain as natural neurotransmitters. The dosage of alcohol consumed plays a significant role in the level of stimulation it causes in neural pathways, leading to higher levels of sedation and inhibition than would occur naturally. It is important to understand the effects of alcohol on the brain in order to make informed decisions about consumption and to recognize the potential dangers of heavy drinking and withdrawal. While alcohol may be legal and socially acceptable, its effects on the brain and body should not be underestimated. If you’re concerned about your alcohol use, book a free consultation here.