If you’ve ever had one drink too many, you know that alcohol affects your entire body. But how does drinking affect your mental state and the health of your brain? Many factors, such as how much and how often you drink, your age and gender, and your general health, have an impact on how alcohol affects your brain. The research is clear, though. Alcohol can affect your mental health in the short and long term.
How Alcohol Works in the Brain
Alcohol works directly on the neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are the messengers that send signals to control thought processes, behaviors and emotions. When you drink, you increase the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA – and that’s what causes the slurred speech and slow movements associated with alcohol. In addition, alcohol increases the amount of dopamine released in your brain. Dopamine is the “reward” chemical, and it’s responsible for the feelings of pleasure some feel when drinking. According to American Addiction Centers , drinking alcohol also decreases your brain’s pre-frontal cortex activity. The pre-frontal cortex is your brain’s decision-making area and less activity means it’s harder to think clearly.
Short-term Mental Health Risks
Some people turn to alcohol to ease social anxiety, but those same effects can be harmful. Alcohol use can lead to lowered inhibitions and poor social judgment. You may speak or act without thinking, or feel like your emotions are out of control.
Drinking alcohol can also result in insomnia. Even minimal drinking can disrupt normal sleep patterns. Sleep is a key component of a healthy mental state.
Blackouts are one of the most damaging short-term effects of alcohol use. A blackout is a short-term memory lapse. Your behavior during the blackout may be harmful to yourself or others, but you don’t know, because you can’t remember it.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), people with a history of alcohol abuse or dependence were two to three times more likely to have an anxiety episode. At least one study from the Archives of General Psychiatry suggests that alcohol abuse may lead to an increased risk of depression. Researchers said that genetic factors may trigger major depression in some drinkers, and that social, financial and legal issues caused by drinking may also play a part in the connection.
Long-term Mental Health Risks
According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services , heavy drinking is generally considered four or more drinks in one day or eight or more drinks per week for women, and five or more drinks in one day or 15 or more drinks per week for men. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks over two hours for women and five or more drinks over two hours for men. Heavy drinkers, especially those who drink long-term, are at risk for many health disorders. Recent research from NIAAA found that long-term heavy alcohol use resulted in pronounced brain shrinkage. The structural integrity of the white matter of the brain was significantly reduced in heavy compared to light drinkers.
Long-term alcohol overuse can lead to poor recall and the ability to form memories. An article in Scientific American recently stated “long-standing alcohol abuse can damage nerve cells and permanently impact memory and learning.”
Navy Alcohol Abuse Prevention (NAAP) encourages Sailors to make responsible choices if they choose to drink, and to take an honest look at their alcohol use. You can use the Keep What You’ve Earned Campaign’s (KWYE) Pier Pressure mobile app to take an anonymous self-check of your drinking habits. If you think your drinking is impacting your work or relationships, or if you suspect you may be struggling with addiction, the Navy’s non-disciplinary self-referral process allows you to seek help and remain an active duty Sailor. Learn the facts about self-referral in this article from All Hands Magazine.