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Alcohol Myth Dispelled as a No-Brainer

Tim Boyer's picture
Alcohol and brain

Waking up after an evening filled with frivolity and liquid spirits often results in a morning filled with regrets, a bad hangover, and perhaps hearing the oft-repeated comment that your headache is the result of dead and dying brain cells that have succumbed to an ethanol onslaught that is essentially pickling your brain. Well fear not, explains writer and retired neurosurgeon Nick Dorsch. As it turns out, that headache you have after drinking is not from dead and dying brain cells after all.

In a recent article titled “Monday’s medical myth: alcohol kills brain cells” posted online at The Conversation―a news website that advertises itself as a provider of independent analysis and commentary from academics and researchers―the author discusses basic neurobiology of the human brain and tells readers that there is some evidence that shows both benefit to drinking as well as hazards to your health.

Referencing an article published in a 2012 issue of “Scientific American Mind,” the point made by the article is that evidence shows that even in heavy drinkers, alcohol consumption doesn't directly kill brain cells; but rather, damages the ends of the nerve cells in the brains (called dendrites) that receive signals from sensory organs and other neurons. When dendrites become damaged or disturbed in some way, it becomes difficult for neurons to relay messages from one to the next.

The significance of this is that without healthy nerve cell-to-nerve cell connections within the brain, we cannot function as well as we should with tasks like learning, sensation, thinking and moving in a controlled and steady manner. The author tells us that as long as drinking alcohol is done with moderation, that this assault on the ends of the nerve cells is only temporary and reversible.

However, it’s when drinking alcohol becomes chronic and to the point of over-consumption that leads to headaches every time you drink, that the effects are not so temporary, and many would argue likely permanent.

Long-term or permanent damage to the brain’s cells can lead to a loss of what it referred to as “neuroplasticity”―the formation of new nerve cells and their ability to form new connections with other nerve cells that are important for creating and storing memory during learning new material or undergoing new experiences. In other words, the brain, rather than being set following birth or growth up to adulthood, actually remodels itself continuously in response to stimuli. If remodeling is prevented, then one cannot learn. And that which had previously been learned--may be lost to atrophy.

Furthermore, the author also points out that damage to the brain’s cell may be secondary to the effects of alcohol such as liver damage that does not remove toxins from the blood that then eventually build up and adversely affect (poisons) the brain. Or, over-consumption of alcohol can cause nutritional and absorptive deficiencies in the GI tract that essentially starves a brain from needed nutrients to keep it healthy.

So what is the headache all about then if it’s not due to pain from actively dying cells?

According to the National Headache Foundation, that pain you are experiencing in the morning after a night of drinking alcohol can be due to several causes:

• Ethanol is a direct vasodilator; in some individuals vasodilation may cause a headache.

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• Ethanol is a natural diuretic, which leads to excretion of salt, vitamins and minerals from the body through the kidneys. Excess consumption of ethanol may then produce dehydration and chemical imbalances in the body that can then cause a headache.

• Some alcoholic beverages contain additional chemicals called “congeners” that provide specific tastes and flavors that make each beverage unique. These congeners also have a variety of effects that can cause headaches, alter other chemicals in the body, and induce the hangover effect if consumed in excess.

• And lastly, some people such as those who suffer from migraines and cluster headaches, are sensitive to alcohol at times―even in small amounts.

The National Headache Foundation advises that taking fructose―the naturally occurring sugar from fruits―helps return portions of the body’s chemical balance back to normal following ethanol consumption.

For information about drinking alcohol and its effect on health, follow the titled links listed below for additional useful health news:

Strawberries Believed to Protect the Stomach from Alcohol Induced Ulcers

5 Health Facts Everyone Should Know about Alcohol

Alcohol Leads to Unsafe Sex and HIV, Confirms Addiction Study

Image Source: Courtesy of MorgueFile


The Conversation: “Monday’s medical myth―alcohol kills brain cells”

National Headache Foundation: Alcohol and Headaches