Most people think that alcohol is fine in small amounts. However, the science on this is constantly shifting. According to a recent observational UK Biobank study from the University of Oxford, there is no such thing as a safe amount of alcohol.
Humans have drunk alcohol for thousands of years, but this subject is still a bone of contention. It is just as controversial as hemp or marijuana (check their website for the latest data). So, does drinking always damage your brain?
Overview of the Study
Researchers collected and analyzed data from over 25,000 participants. They examined their self-reported alcohol intake and brain scans. The conclusions point to a connection between alcohol and the amount of gray matter in the regions responsible for decision making.
Basically, the people who drank more had less gray matter. What’s even more frightening, participants who drank any alcohol (beer, wine, or liquor) even in the smallest amounts had less gray matter than teetotalers. This study has not been peer-reviewed yet, but it has already caused quite a stir.
The conclusions challenge the common belief that alcohol in small doses is safe or even healthy. Even moderate consumption may have adverse effects on the brain!
Anya Topiwala, a senior clinical researcher at the University of Oxford and a lead study author, notes that the definition of moderate drinking should be reconsidered. Many individuals suppose they drink in moderation, but possible effects on the brain, acceptable amounts, and high-risk groups are still debatable aspects. In her interview for Yahoo Life, she has also mentioned that ethanol (i.e., alcohol) is “probably also directly toxic to brain cells”.
However, one important aspect of the study makes its finding questionable. Correlation does not always imply causation. The researchers have not been able to determine that alcohol is the cause for the deterioration of gray matter. Something else could be at play. Therefore, while the results are groundbreaking, we should still wait for the peer review.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines
According to the official guidelines, any American aged 21 or older should limit their consumption to 1 or 2 drinks or fewer a day (for women and men, respectively). Drinking less is recommended as a healthier option. Meanwhile, teetotalers should not start drinking at all.
Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol contains a lot of calories, even though it is not a protein or carb. These calories are empty, which means that they have zero nutritional value. For example, you get around 250 calories from a pint of the average strong lager or 250 ml of red wine. To burn off these extra calories, you would need to spend half an hour on a treadmill.
Heavy drinking also leads to poor dietary choices. In 2017, the Francis Crick Institute concluded that alcohol tricks your brain into activating starvation mode. It makes you believe you are hungry when you are not. Excessive drinking causes weight gain, which triggers a broad spectrum of medical issues. People who drink too much alcohol:
- suffer from high blood pressure,
- have problems with digestion,
- are more likely to develop heart disease, or
- develop the alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD).
ARLD is increasingly common. It develops over years and includes different stages of severity. Typical symptoms are vomiting, yellowing of the skin and eyes, swelling of the stomach and ankles. Almost all cases of liver disease in the United Kingdom (90%) are connected to alcohol abuse, according to the British Liver Trust.
When people drink to excess, fat starts building up in their liver. This causes inflammation or irritation. Eventually, the liver becomes scarred or develops fibrosis. Eventually, this results in ARLD. Finally, heavy drinking has been proven to damage the brain by causing thiamine deficiency.
Alcohol Consumption Trends in the UK
According to the National Health Service (NHS), hospitals in England have seen a surge in admissions related to alcohol. Over the past decade, their numbers have grown by 20%. Meanwhile, in Scotland, alcohol-specific deaths have become much more common — their rate rose by 17% in 2020 alone. In 2018, The Lancet journal published a study showing that women in the UK not only drink more — they are also among the heaviest drinkers worldwide.
Ed Sheeran’s Weight Gain
In 2021, Singer Ed Sheeran admitted that excessive drinking had damaged his health. When his tour was put to a halt due to Covid-19, he started drinking up to two bottles of wine per night. This led to putting on a lot of weight (to 15.5 stone), as alcohol prevented his body from burning fat. The singer has shed 5 stones and 8 inches in the waist since giving up alcohol.
Make Small Changes
Even slight lifestyle changes make a difference. Going cold turkey is not only difficult but also unlikely to bring lasting results. Instead, focus on making small steps in the right direction every day.
- Arrange drink-free days every week, and increase their number gradually.
- Use smaller glasses to trick your brain and drink less without realizing it.
- Do not exceed the recommended limits (14 units per week) to allow your liver to repair itself.
- Limit the amount of sugar and calories by mixing some soda or sparkling water into your spirit. Add a squeeze of lime or lemon. This will also dilute the alcohol content.
- Try switching to alternative non-alcoholic beverages (e.g., Seedlip).
- Mix soda water with wine to make spritzers with diluted alcohol content.
- Drink slowly and mindfully.
Finally, be very careful with your portions during the fastest season. Most restaurants, bars, and pubs serve alcohol in large glasses, so patrons inevitably drink more than they should. Christmas cocktails also include a lot of sugar — as much as 500 calories per drink!
To Sum Up
When it comes to alcohol, “moderation” is a highly controversial term. Recent research highlights the danger of drinking in any amounts. Your brain will inevitably shrink with age, so why accelerate this process with alcohol, which also causes a plethora of other problems?