The Role of Moderate Drinking in Brain Health

Alcohol affects many parts of the brain. And that is why you may experience blurred vision, memory blackouts, or persistent headaches after binge drinking. While these effects may fade quickly, numerous studies show that long-term heavy drinking can cause cognitive impairment and conditions that may require lifelong care. 

The Role of Moderate Drinking in Brain Health

While many moderate drinkers enjoy the way it makes them feel—more sociable, less stressed—new research suggests that even a glass of wine or a bottle of beer every day may affect brain health. Get comfortable and read on to find out the role moderate drinking plays in brain health and how alcohol impacts your brain

Alcohol and the Brain

The brain is the body’s most vital organ. It directs and coordinates all actions, reactions, and bodily functions. According to the CDC, a healthy brain must perform all mental processes of cognition, including the ability to judge, learn, and remember.

There is a link between alcohol and brain health, albeit negative. Unlike many drugs, alcohol influences many brain parts simultaneously, affecting their communication line and overall health. 

Alcohol interacts with potent neurotransmitter receptors like GABA and glutamate, causing lethargy, slow breathing, and a lessened gag reflex. Your drinking habits also put your frontal lobe, medulla, cerebellum, and hippocampus at risk. These structures regulate memory storage, movement, balance, breathing, heart rate, and hormone release, all of which can be influenced by alcohol consumption.

The Effects of Moderate Drinking on Brain Health 

It is common knowledge that frequent drinking can affect your overall health and could damage your liver. But the liver isn’t the only organ alcohol damages as it also affects the brain. 

Heavy drinking affects the brain's communication pathways, structure, and size. Even though moderate drinking is recommended, mounting evidence shows it can harm brain health.

Here are some effects of moderate drinking on the brain: 

It causes your brain to age quickly 

As humans age, brain volume reduces, and some parts of the brain shrink, especially those critical to mental activities. Previous studies linked heavy alcohol consumption to these brain changes. However, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania discovered that even light to moderate drinking can reduce overall brain volume, causing changes similar to aging. 

Data obtained from this research showed that consuming a glass of wine or pint of beer daily ages the brain by two years. This aging effect increases the more alcohol a person consumes. So, those who drank two to three glasses of wine daily would have brains three and a half years older than those who didn’t drink. 

It raises iron levels in the brain 

Researchers from the University of Oxford have found that moderate drinking could lead to higher brain iron levels. Iron accumulation impacts the brain's cognitive performance and has been linked to Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Also, increased iron levels in the basal ganglia have been linked to slow reaction and problem-solving speed. 

How much alcohol is too much?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) suggests that women have one daily drink while men can have two without complications. Researchers' findings, however, indicate that alcohol levels considered safe by government guidelines may cause harmful changes in the brain.

So how much alcohol is too much, and is the damage permanent?

While the NIAAA limits are probably higher than they should be, data from these studies show that at low drinking levels, the changes in the brain are minor. Consuming half a drink per day had no significant effect on brain volume compared to having a drink daily. On the other hand, new research indicates that some early signs of alcohol-related brain damage can be partially reversed after weeks of abstinence. 

More importantly, these studies provide little insight into whether moderate drinking is harmful, beneficial, or indifferent to long-term brain health.   

How to Reduce the Impact of Drinking on Brain Health

Moderate or light drinking isn’t all harmful. Several studies have shown moderate drinking to minimize the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.

In addition, moderate drinking has been shown to reduce the chances of developing gallstones and diabetes. And one cannot deny the social benefits that moderate drinking provides when you're out with friends.

So, what can you do to protect your brain health?

Stay hydrated

Alcohol is a diuretic that causes water loss through the urine. Because the tissue surrounding your brain is made up of water, the more alcohol you consume, the more water you lose, causing your brain to shrink. This puts pressure on your head, and you may experience headaches, dizziness, or fatigue. With each alcoholic drink, drink one or two cups of water; your brain will thank you. 

Take vitamin B1 supplements

Thiamine (Vitamin B1) is a water-soluble supplement commonly deficient in regular drinkers. Lack of this vitamin may cause brain cell damage, fatigue, memory loss, and decreased awareness. Studies have linked thiamine to protecting the brain from excess iron accumulation, so consider including it in your diet. 

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Lifestyle changes can help improve the adverse effects of alcohol on brain health. Asides from drinking moderately, maintain a healthy diet and exercise as often as possible.  A simple jog every morning can do the trick and could be your ticket to having your cake and eating it. 

Mindful drinking

You can track your alcohol consumption and avoid harmful side effects like hangovers with mindful drinking. The Sunnyside app can help you monitor drinking, understand and improve your drinking habits, protecting your brain health.  


There is no denying the effects of alcohol on the structure, function, and overall health of the brain. The negative effects of heavy drinking on the brain are well documented, but new studies are shedding light on how moderate drinkers aren't safe either. While there is no solid evidence of the effects of moderate drinking on long-term brain health, you may be wondering what you can do to protect yourself. Try mindful drinking if you're not ready to go cold turkey and give up drinking totally. You can use a mindful drinking app like the Sunnyside app to keep your drinking under control. If you're concerned about drinking habits, consult a healthcare professional. They'll work with you step-by-step to find the tips that suit your needs.