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27th May, 2022

Bella Hadid says a brain scan made her give up drinking – so how does alcohol affect your brain?

Droitwich Editorial 24th Jan, 2022

The model says she quit booze after seeing the damage it can do to the brain. Lisa Salmon finds out more.

If you’ve not managed to stick to those Dry January goals, perhaps you need to have a look at your brain like Bella Hadid, who says seeing the damage it can potentially cause was the boost she needed to stop drinking.

In an interview the model, 25, said:

“I have done my fair share of drinking. I loved alcohol and it got to the point where even I started to, you know, cancel nights out that I felt like I wouldn’t be able to control myself.”

But after seeing the effect alcohol can have on the brain, she says it became “a lot harder to pick up the glass”. Hadid, who stopped drinking months ago, also said:

“I don’t feel the need because I know how it will affect me at three in the morning when I wake up with horrible anxiety, thinking about that one thing I said five years ago.”

The benefits of giving up alcohol are well known. Alcohol Change UK (alcoholchange.org.uk) says these can include better sleep, skin, energy levels and concentration. It can help with mental health too, a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, plus lower cholesterol and a healthier immune system, not to mention saving money.

But what about alcohol and the brain?

Andrew Misell of Alcohol Change UK says:

“As anyone who has ever had an alcoholic drink will know, alcohol changes the way your brain works.

“These effects will pass, but long-term heavy drinking can bring about physical changes to the brain. Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) is an umbrella term for the damage that can happen to the brain as a result of long-term heavy drinking, and produces symptoms very similar to dementia.

“In order to maintain good brain health, if you do drink alcohol, it’s important to keep your consumption moderate.”

Here’s a closer look at how alcohol can affect the brain…

Alcohol affects the brain’s chemistry

Alcohol is a depressant, which means it can disrupt the brain’s delicate chemical balance, affecting thoughts, feelings and actions. This is because it affects the brain’s neurotransmitter chemicals that help transmit signals between nerves (neurons). The charity Drinkaware (drinkaware.co.uk) explains that, for example, the relaxed, more confident and less anxious feeling that comes with drinking is due to the suppression of signals in the part of the brain associated with inhibition.

Learning, emotions, movement and memory

A recent Oxford University study, which used scans to look at the relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and brain health, found no amount of drinking alcohol is ‘safe’ for brain function. The scans showed alcohol consumption correlated with decreases in brain grey matter, which controls movement, memory and emotions, and white matter, which affects learning and general brain functions. The authors concluded:

“No safe dose of alcohol for the brain was found. Moderate consumption is associated with more widespread adverse effects on the brain than previously recognised,”

adding:

“Current ‘low risk’ drinking guidelines should be revisited to take account of brain effects.”

Alcohol shrinks your brain

Another study by Johns Hopkins University found the more alcohol consumed, the smaller the total brain volume. The research suggested that people who drink just one to seven alcoholic dinks per week have smaller brains than non-drinkers, and people who have two or more alcoholic drinks per day have even more brain shrinkage.

Less control over aggression

Researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia used MRI scans that measure blood-flow in the brain to try to understand why people can become aggressive and violent after drinking alcohol. After only two drinks, the researchers noted changes in the working of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which helps control aggression.

Alcohol can make you anxious and depressed

Drinkaware says regardless of the mood you’re in, the effect of alcohol on the brain’s neurotransmitters means negative emotions can take over, leading to a negative impact on mental health. This can result in anxiety and depression, among other things.

Alcohol affects blood flow to the brain

Studies show alcohol effects blood flow to the brain too. Alcohol is a vasodilator (it causes blood vessels to relax and widen) but at higher levels, it becomes a vasoconstrictor – shrinking the vessels and increasing blood pressure, exacerbating conditions like migraine. Indeed, the brain scans of heavy drinkers may show reduced overall blood flow, which the NHS says can damage and eventually kill brain cells and is linked to vascular dementia.

Alcohol affects learning and memory

Alcohol Change explains that a condition called alcohol amnesic syndrome, which can occur in very heavy drinkers, involves short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating and confabulation (filling gaps in memories with irrelevant or inaccurate information). Alcohol is also linked to dementia, and studies show excessive and prolonged alcohol use can lead to permanent damage to the structure and function of the brain linked to alcohol-related dementia.

Another Oxford University study found alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, is associated with brain problems including hippocampal atrophy. This is shrinkage of the hippocampus area, which plays a critical role in learning, memory and emotion regulation.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE HELP GIVING UP ALCOHOL:

Useful contacts for alcohol problems

  • Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, you can call this free helpline in complete confidence. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am to 8pm, weekends 11am to 4pm).
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a free self-help group. Its “12 step” programme involves getting sober with the help of regular support groups.
  • Al-Anon Family Groups offers support and understanding to the families and friends of problem drinkers, whether they’re still drinking or not. Alateen is part of Al-Anon and can be attended by 12- to 17-year-olds who are affected by another person’s drinking, usually a parent.
  • We Are With You is a UK-wide treatment agency that helps individuals, families and communities manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse. If you are over 50 and worried about your drinking, call 0808 8010 750
  • Adfam is a national charity working with families affected by drugs and alcohol. Adfam operates an online message board and a database of local support groups.
  • The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) provides a free, confidential telephone and email helpline for children of alcohol-dependent parents and others concerned about their welfare. Call 0800 358 3456 for the Nacoa helpline.
  • SMART Recovery groups help people decide whether they have a problem, build up their motivation to change, and offer a set of proven tools and techniques to support recovery.

Caring for an alcoholic? Find out where you can get support.

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