Alcohol: How It Affects Your Brain and Mood

Alcohol has no positive effects on the brain and body, but it misleads us into thinking it does. In the short term, alcohol can make us believe that it positively impacts our mood and lives, making us feel more confident and relaxed.

However, alcohol is a depressant that slows down the brain, causing many adverse reactions.

Therefore, whenever or wherever you choose to drink, it’s essential to drink in moderation and responsibly to lessen alcohol’s harmful side effects on the brain and mood that comes with frequent and heavy alcohol consumption.

Alcohol and the Brain

As a sedative, the positive effects of alcohol use are short term, as mentioned above. You may find yourself feeling more confident, relaxed and at ease, but this only lasts for a short time.

However, consuming excess alcohol disrupts the balance of chemicals and processes in the brain.

It’s these chemical changes that give your brain this relaxed feeling. But, unfortunately, even with the first drink, alcohol depresses the part of the brain that controls inhibition.

But more negative effects can begin after only one or two drinks, including:

  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired memory
  • Slowed reaction times
  • Blurred vision
  • And difficulty walking.

Our brain is the essential machine that controls all our body, sending signals to our important bodily parts, and therefore alcohol heavily affects the brain. These alcohol side effects will usually resolve themself after the alcohol has left the body.

However, those who drink heavily over long periods are likely to negatively impact the brain that will be present well after they reach sobriety. [1]

What Science Tells Us About Alcohol and the Brain

Science has determined that heavy drinking can have severe, complex, and extensive adverse reactions on the brain. Even short-term alcohol consumption can lead to blackouts, memory lapses and more permanent and incapacitating conditions that would require a lifetime of care.

Of course, how badly the brain is affected relies on several factors, such as:

  • Age
  • Weight
  • General health
  • How much alcohol is consumed
  • And how long it is consumed

For example, long-term drinkers risk developing severe and long-lasting changes to the brain, such as Thiamine deficiency.

Thiamine, otherwise known as vitamin B1, is an essential nutrient that keeps the body and brain functioning as they should.

With 80% of alcoholics deficient in Thiamine, many people will develop a severe brain disorder that occurs from a lack of Thiamine, such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS).

These two separate conditions work together to cause mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes (oculomotor disturbances), continuous learning and memory problems, and difficulty with walking and muscle coordination. [2]

Alcohol’s Effect on Anxiety

Although many who suffer from anxiety will use alcohol to self-medicate, reduce stress, and increase confidence, repeated alcohol misuse can quickly bring on or increase anxiety and panic attacks. Unfortunately, this turns into a vicious cycle.

Those suffering from anxiety will self-medicate their anxiety with alcohol to increase their confidence and reduce their stress, which only worsens the condition, causing further, more severe anxiety and panic attacks.

Furthermore, relying on alcohol to minimise anxiety symptoms can result in a further need to continue drinking and eventual alcohol addiction.

Withdrawal symptoms don’t only come in physical symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and confusion.

Instead, once the sedative effects of alcohol have worn off, individuals can also suffer from physical, psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression. In addition, withdrawing from alcohol can make already present symptoms of anxiety worse.

For example, those prone to social anxiety may worry about what they said and did the night before.

Those who suffer from generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) may notice more around them that could be interpreted as life-threatening or awake after the alcohol has left their system feeling stressed and worried. [3]

Alcohol Plus Stress and Depression

Anxiety isn’t the only mental health issue that individuals will use alcohol to self-medicate. Those suffering from stress and depression will also use alcohol to ease their symptoms and make them feel better.

As mentioned, alcohol makes you feel more relaxed, confusing and changing how your brain cells signal to each other.

When life becomes too stressful or the feelings of depression become too hard to bear, alcohol may seem like an excellent option to create a sense of bliss, to escape everyday life.

Alcohol deceptively sends subtle signals to the brain that helps deal with emotional upset. However, this is a lie and only lasts in the short term.

This use of alcohol to self-medicate worsens depression and stress. As the alcohol leaves our body and the withdrawal symptoms set in, the brain’s aversive state worsens feelings of depression and anxiety. [4]

Benefits of Not Drinking

Hopefully, you now see how consuming alcohol never helps any mental health disorders and can bring upon feelings of anxiety and depression, even if they weren’t present previously.

However, with so many other ways to relax and help our mental health other than alcohol, there are many ways to break the habit of excessive alcohol consumption.

Yes, it’s not hard to break the habit of alcohol consumption, especially if you have been drinking most day or every day to relax. But there are ways you can help yourself to overcome alcoholism or alcohol dependence.

For example, you could begin by reducing your drinking to perhaps only one glass of wine with dinner, only in moderation on the weekend.

You could also try to drink later in the evening, teaching yourself to wait rather than drinking as soon as you come home from work.

Cutting back in this way can be effective, depending on the severity of your addiction.

However, if your habit is severe and you find yourself needing a more structured and professional form of help, you can reach out to your GP, who will talk you through your options for drug and alcohol treatment.

You can also find addiction support through charities and private drug and alcohol treatment organisations by searching the Adfam website.

Finding More Positive Ways to Reduce Alcohol Consumption

An integral way to help yourself overcome your alcohol misuse and self-medication for your mental health disorder is to practise self-help, mainly in the form of more holistic therapies.

In addition, finding healthier ways to relax and manage your feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression is an effective way to reduce or cut out you’re drinking altogether.

Some excellent replacements for alcohol include:

  • Exercise is beneficial for both the brain and body. Even if you prefer to walk, run, hike, dance or play golf, tennis, or cricket, any of these can release endorphins and improve mood, with positive effects on mental health well documented and researched. [5]
  • Relax with your favourite calming music.
  • Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are all fantastic holistic therapies that allow the body to breathe, relax and become free from the voices of our minds.
  • Lose yourself in another world with a good book, exciting film, or Netflix binge.
  • Cook up a storm in the kitchen. So many people find chopping, stirring, and cooking a soothing way to unwind from the day’s stresses.
  • Soothe your body and brain with a relaxing bath. Indulge with your favourite candles, essential oils, and bubble bath and let yourself go from the realities of life.