The truth about alcohol and brain health

November 13th, 2015 by NHI

Research suggests a history of heavy drinking, especially in middle-aged folks, could contribute to memory loss in later years. It may even contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

And take note: The “sweet spot” between healthy, moderate consumption and dangerous, “heavy drinking” is surprisingly small.

Read on to find out where your scientific “sweet spot” is … and how you can potentially reverse the effects of alcohol on your brain before disease develops

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Red wine is an integral part of the Mediterranean diet, one of the world’s most thoroughly studied eating patterns. It’s an eating plan that’s pretty much proven to increase longevity and reduce disease.

As a Natural Health Insiders reader, you’re probably familiar with many studies that have shown the benefits of low to moderate alcohol consumption, especially in the form of red wine.

For example …

A French study of 3,800 wine-drinkers over 65 definitively showed moderate wine consumption decreased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.1

Another study from the journal Age & Ageing found moderate alcohol consumption is associated with better cognitive health than no drinking at all.2

This is likely due to a powerful combination of red wine’s antioxidants (like resveratrol) and alcohol’s vasodilating action, which increases oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood flow to the brain.

However, when it comes to long-term brain health, there’s a thin line between healthy and harmful.

Generally speaking, “moderate” means one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. (Actually, to me that’s quite a bit of drinking.)

What’s more, a 2014 study published in Neurology has convinced me this definition of “moderate” is far too vague, when you consider something as precious as your brain is potentially at risk.

Let me explain.

The study showed men who consumed more than 1.3 ounces of alcohol per day began to experience cognitive decline up to six years earlier than did their lighter-drinking counterparts.3

There were no differences in cognitive decline among men who quit, abstained, or had consumed less alcohol than 1.3 ounces.

The line was very clearly drawn at 1.3 ounces.

Unless you’re a sommelier, that probably doesn’t mean much to you.

If wine is your alcoholic beverage of choice, you may know that a pinot noir is about 14% alcohol. The standard “pour” for a glass of wine in a restaurant is five ounces. Two glasses would equal 1.4 ounces of alcohol … too much to be considered healthy by the Neurology study’s results.

And of course, wines vary in their alcohol content, and glasses of wine often contain more than five ounces. What’s more, the 1.3 ounce figure is an average. Each person is different; in general, the larger you are the more you can drink without doing damage or becoming too intoxicated. That’s why it’s recommended that women, on average, stick to one glass per day while men, on average, can drink two.

If you’re concerned about your brain and you drink alcohol regularly, it’s important to be aware of the knife’s edge of difference between healthy and heavy drinking.

Heavy Drinking Puts You at Risk of Alzheimer’s

Researchers have believed since 1998 that “heavy” alcohol consumption is as important as hypertension and family history in gauging a person’s risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.4

Researchers in the UK recently confirmed those findings. They studied 6,500 middle-age adults for nearly twenty years and found participants with a history of alcohol use disorders were twice as likely to fall victim to severe memory impairment.5

More than two drinks per day is usually considered an “alcohol use disorder.” The condition is said to affect over 17 million American adults today.6

And scientists are starting to gain some insight into how heavy drinking contributes to dementia.

They know it atrophies (shrinks) brain matter, though they aren’t exactly sure why. It may be that the consumption of ethanol affects cells; other hypotheses include malnutrition (frequently seen among alcoholics), liver dysfunction (also common among alcoholics), ethanol-induced hormonal changes, and increased inflammation from immune-system cells called cytokines.7

Whatever the cause, brain atrophy triggers changes in neurological functioning and can even cause a condition known as “alcoholic dementia.”8

However, there is good news.

Studies show this deterioration decreases with abstinence from alcohol.

And researchers found no discernible difference in the number of neurons between alcoholics and non-drinkers.8

It seems an alcoholic’s brain cells can survive the ordeal. This opens the possibility that you can reverse some of the effects of alcohol-induced atrophy by drinking less, or not at all.

My takeaway from all this is that a person’s drinking should be more moderate than what experts officially define as “moderate.” The official definition – one drink per day for women, two drinks per day for men – is a lot of drinking as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t think daily alcohol consumption is a good idea, whatever benefits a few studies may show.

Your long-term brain health may depend on making a wise choice.

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