I am not messing with you.
I haven’t had a drop since listening to Andrew Huberman’s 2 hour episode about all the negative effects alcohol has on our bodies.
I was shocked. And completely disgusted that I’ve been doing this to my body since I was a wee babe (13 years old!).
The only thing we can’t buy back is time — but at least I can focus on my health and hope to regenerate some of that sweet sweet neuroplasticity.
Here’s a recap of the main points that got me quittin’.
- What defines a drink?
- What happens while you’re drinking
- Alcohol and cancer
- Alcohol and your brain
- Alcohol and behaviour
- Alcohol and hormones
- How to offset the negative effects
- Predisposition to alcoholism
But first.. What “defines” a drink?
According to the studies, a typical ‘drink’ in most places is:
- 5 oz of hard liquor
- 12 oz beer, or
- 5 oz wine
Huberman talks mostly about moderate, chronic drinking. What do you think ‘chronic’ means in the context of these studies?
When I first heard it, I thought: Oh like alcoholics.. probably drinking 8–10 drinks a night, almost every night
Actually moderate, chronic drinking is 7–24 drinks per week total, regardless of cadence — which means it could be once per day, or all on the weekend.
So, if you go out to da club on Friday/Saturday and drink 7 Gin&Tonics you are a moderate, chronic drinker.
Without further ado, these are the effects of moderate, chronic drinking, in the moment as well as ongoing and daily — even while you’re not drinking.
How does alcohol impact the body while drinking?
First, it releases impulsive behavior and thought patterns by shutting down the prefrontal cortex, and top down inhibition. So it makes it hard to not do that stupid thing you regret the next morning.
Alcohol shuts down “flexible behavior” and the neural networks involved in memory formation and storage. Which is why you often don’t remember that stupid thing you did, until your friends so kindly remind you.
It makes serotonin and dopamine uptake neurons hyperactive with the first drink, then they shut down with subsequent drinks. This is why you feel happy and energized, a mild euphoria, with your first drink (but first drink only). Many of us chase that feeling for the rest of the night with more drinks.
Eventually it starts to shut down motor cortical areas that control coordinated movement (walking, speech, and so on).
If you ever get blackout drunk, it’s because of the effect on your hippocampus. With a lot of alcohol, the neurons in the hippocampus involved with memory formation completely shut down. Bye bye memories.
Alcohol also kills your healthy gut microbiota
And in turn, increases pro-inflammatory molecules. So the lining of the gut is disrupted and you temporarily have a “leaky gut”, which means that bad bacteria from partially digested food passes into your bloodstream.
This one really hit home for me, as someone with a sensitive gut. Gut health is the key to overall wellness — that’s where nutrients uptake into your system and keep everything functioning optimally.
The result of the pro-inflammatory molecules — cytokines — being released and getting into your brain is a disruption of the neural circuits that control regulation of drinking. Resulting in more drinking. (It’s never just ‘one drink’ is it?)
On top of aaaaalll this, when you’re drinking, it:
- Disrupts deep and REM sleep, which are critical for restorative sleep
- Drops core body temperature, making it extremely dangerous and possibly deadly to do something like go swimming
- Is a diuretic, which makes you pee more, which causes you to lose sodium (critical electrolyte)
And that’s just while you’re out at a the pub, crushing brews and watching the game. Now for the effects after you’ve downed a few pints.
“Alcohol is associated with a significant increase in cancer risk”
“…In particular, breast cancer … There has been proposed to be anywhere from 4–13% increase in risk of breast cancer for every 10 grams of alcohol consumed.”
10–15 grams of alcohol is about one beer in US. However, other countries might measure drinks slightly differently.
Cancer risk increases when tumors take hold after lots of mutated cells collect and multiply. Alcohol actually increases the tumor growth, while decreasing the molecules that suppress and fight the tumor.
I’ll say that again:
Alcohol actually increases the tumor growth, while decreasing the molecules that suppress and fight the tumor.
Alcohol wreaks havoc on your brain
“Even for people that were drinking low to moderate amounts of alcohol, so 1 or 2 drinks per day, there was evidence of thinning of the neocortex — so, loss of neurons in the neocortex — and other brain regions.”
What does this mean? Alcohol causes neurodegeneration (thinning) of the neocortex.
This usually happens with age, so essentially you are speeding up the aging process by drinking regularly.
Drinking regularly causes the hypothalamus to release more cortisol on an ongoing basis. And cortisol is very useful and necessary! But we don’t want it in excess.
It’s the ‘stress hormone’ — you don’t want to keep your body under constant stress. Heightened cortisol been linked to anxiety, disease and other health complications.
Drinking also changes the neural circuits that control your behaviour. Your habitual and impulsive actions are affected when you drink… Which, if you drink regularly, you know quite well.
That feeling of excitement, boldness, and free-spirited approach to the present moment is the fun side of getting drunk. You can do no wrong.
Until… The next morning — regret: why did I try to do a cartwheel off the garage into the pool?!
Drinking alcohol impacts your day-to-day
The lasting effects of alcohol influence the social, emotional, and behavioural parts of your everyday life.
Drinking reduces your ability to hold associative memories, to think and plan, and to regulate your more primitive drives.
Almost everyone I meet is sh*t at remembering new people’s names. That’s your associative memory not functioning as it should — or to its full potential.
Planning, organizing, and thinking about outcomes could be more difficult if you drink regularly. Maybe it requires more effort, or you get overwhelmed by these kinds of tasks.
It can also affect how you act on your impulses and develop habitual behaviour. Ever tried to kick a bad habit? How motivated are you to develop new, good habits when you’re extra tired, lacking nutrients, and feel more anxious in general?
Maybe you react strongly to certain words or situations. Maybe you struggle to regulate your emotions. Or maybe you act on your impulses, like eating that Big Mac even though you swore you’d start your diet today.
Drinking alcohol can bring on ‘hangxiety’ or heightened feelings of stress
When you dirnk, you are less resilient to stress, and have higher levels of baseline stress. On top of that, often people have a lower mood overall.
There are many ways the effects of alcohol could manifest. But so far, the impacts aren’t good.
Alcohol messes up your hormones
Drinking alcohol increases the conversion of testosterone to estrogen. What does this really mean for your body?
In females: It can increase the risk of estrogen-related cancers.
In males: I can stimulate the growth of breast tissue, diminish your sex drive, and increase fat storage.
Aromatization is the process that converts testosterone into estrogen. This is a natural process your body goes through to maintain homeostasis (healthy balance). Buuuut it can go into overdrive! Especially when we drink chronically, or take steroids.
So how do we offset the risk/damage from alcohol (aside from not drinking)?
Huberman emphasized that these tools are NOT an excuse to drink in excess. They may help offset some negative effects, but are in no way a remedy to the damage you inflict on your body when consuming alcohol.
Folate and B12
You can partially offset the risk of alcohol-encouraging tumor growth by making sure there are adequate levels of folate and B12 in the body.
Reduce inflammation and support healthy gut microbiome by eating 2–4 servings of fermented food per day.
Drink 1, or ideally 2, glasses of water with electrolytes for every alcoholic beverage to replace sodium.
There is evidence cold showers can help a hangover, because it boosts epinephrine (adrenaline) in your system.
How to tell if you have a predisposition for alcoholism
Aside from it running in the family, here are a few things to watch out for if you do choose to drink alcohol.
If after a few drinks, you start to feel sedated, you are likely not predisposed to alcoholism.
However, if after a few drinks, you start to feel energized, you are more likely to be predisposed to alcoholism.
If you started drinking young (like me), let’s say 13 or 14 years old, then you are more likely to be predisposed to alcoholism.
Learning all of this shocked me to my core. And completely changed my view of drinking. Luckily, I’m someone who gets sleepy when they drink so it was easier for me to quit cold turkey.
If you’re worried that you won’t be able to say ‘no’ when out in social situations or at special gatherings, try to surround yourself with people who have similar values and lifestyle to you.
Becoming friends with a group of awesome, fun people who don’t drink much (or at all) completely changed my view of “a fun night out”. Singing karaoke, playing games, or cooking together doesn’t need to be accompanied by a drink. It’s so much easier when your social circles are also practicing a healthy lifestyle.
As James Clear would say, “Motivation is overvalued. Environment often matters more.”