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How alcohol affects your brain

Can a big night out really kill brain cells? We take a look at the immediate, next day and long term effects of alcohol on the brain.

How alcohol affects your brain

You may be relieved to find out alcohol doesn’t necessarily kill brain cells. It can, however, have a damaging effect on your brain.

The immediate effects of alcohol on the brain

Alcohol is a depressant. That doesn’t mean it makes you depressed, it means it slows down the chemical signals between your brain and your body.

Even after one or two drinks, this ‘slowing down’ affects things like your reaction times, concentration, balance, coordination and even your speech. That’s why drunk people sometimes stumble and slur.

And have you ever wondered why that stupid idea seemed like such a good one after a few drinks? Alcohol affects your cognitive skills including things like your judgement, while decreasing your inhibitions and increasing impulsivity.

MORE: How alcohol affects your memory

These effects tend to wear off as alcohol leaves your system, but it’s important to recognise that every time you drink you are more at risk of hurting yourself (or doing something you might regret later).

The only way to reduce your risk of injury (or unwittingly confessing your love to a secret crush) is to drink sensibly. The Australian guidelines recommend no more than four drinks on one occasion to reduce the risk of alcohol-related injury.

The day-after effects of alcohol on the brain

Alcohol continues to affect your brain and your body well after you’ve stopped drinking.

Because alcohol is a diuretic, it makes you wee more. All those regular trips to the bathroom and a night of sweating it out on the dancefloor can leave you dehydrated. Meanwhile, as your body processes the alcohol, a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde builds up in your blood.

These factors, along with changes to your sleep cycle and hormones, all lead to that seedy hungover feeling, including headaches, stomach upsets and feeling tired.

What you may not realise is that a hangover can affect your brain function and motor skills as well. According to John Hopkins University Health Library, your memory, attention, visual-spatial skills, manual dexterity and reaction times are all adversely affected by alcohol, even after your blood-alcohol level returns to zero.

Alcohol can also affect your mental health.  While a drink or two may make you feel relaxed and less anxious, it can leave you feeling worse in the long-term. It’s not unusual to feel flat, moody and anxious after a big night out. And if you have an existing mental health problem, like anxiety or depression, drinking can make the symptoms worse. Why? Alcohol impacts on the delicate chemical balance of chemicals in your brain that affect how you think and feel.

MORE: Hangxiety: why some people feel guilty and anxious after a night out

 The long-term effects of alcohol on the brain

We know that long-term heavy drinking can result in alcohol-related brain impairment. It can affect cognitive functions like memory and information processing as well as balance and coordination, even speech and mood.

Can it have the same effect for people who drink moderately, or binge drink? Unfortunately, there is still a lot we don’t know about the long term effects of these types of alcohol use on the brain.

What we do know is drinking heavily is bad for many of your vital organs, including your brain.

So, if you want to try and keep your brain as healthy and happy as possible, consider having a break from alcohol altogether. If that’s not your style, make sure you stick to the recommended guidelines, which means no more than four standard drinks on one occasion, and no more than two on any day.

The benefits aren’t just for your brain, taking a break from alcohol can improve your sleep, shrink your waistline and even reduce your risk of certain cancers.

MORE: How to take a break from alcohol

If you’re struggling to cut back, it might be time to speak to a professional. You GP is a good first port of call, or you can call your state-based helpline to speak to a trained counsellor.

Want to know more about how alcohol and drugs really affect you? Read about the main health issues impacting young Aussies at Medibank.com.au/Adultish

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