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Last Updated: 12.06.23

What Alcohol Does to Your Body, Brain & Health

Huberman delves into the physiological effects of alcohol on the brain and body, including genetic predispositions, metabolism, inebriation, inflammation, and hangovers. Strategies for informed alcohol consumption are discussed, providing insights for making decisions aligned with mental and physical health goals.

Key Takeaways

High level takeaways from the episode.

High levels of alcohol consumption (12–24 drinks per week) can cause neurodegeneration, particularly in the neocortex.

A recent study found that even low to moderate amounts of alcohol consumption (1–2 drinks per day) can cause thinning of the neocortex and loss of neurons in other brain regions.

Chronic alcohol intake, even at low levels, can disrupt the brain.

Humans have been consuming alcohol for thousands of years

  • Archaeological evidence from Mesopotamia (5000 years ago)
  • First distillation in China (1st century)

Ethanol is converted into acetaldehyde (more toxic) and then into acetate (usable fuel)

  • Conversion process is metabolically costly and provides empty calories

Regular drinkers or those with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism may feel energized and alert for longer periods when drinking

Occasional drinkers may experience a brief period of feeling good before transitioning into tiredness and impaired motor function

Being drunk is a poison-​​induced disruption of neural circuits

Alcohol crosses the blood-​​brain barrier (BBB) and affects neurons and glial cells in the brain

Prefrontal cortex activity is suppressed, leading to impulsive behavior and less inhibition

Alcohol affects memory formation and storage, leading to blackouts and forgetting events

Habitual and impulsive behavior circuits are strengthened with regular alcohol consumption, even if not daily

  • This can lead to increased impulsivity and habitual behavior even when not drinking
  • Abstinence from alcohol for 2–6 months can reverse these changes in neural circuits

Food can slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream if consumed before or during alcohol intake

  • Eating after already being inebriated will not sober a person up but may blunt the effects of additional alcohol consumption

Alcohol affects serotonin levels in the brain, which are involved in mood and feelings of well-being

Alcohol disrupts mood circuitries at first, making them hyperactive

  • People become talkative and feel good after a few sips of alcohol

As alcohol wears off, serotonin levels and activity of circuits drop

  • People feel less good and often consume more alcohol to restore the feeling of well-being

Some people have gene variants or are chronic drinkers that make them feel better with increasing amounts of alcohol

  • These individuals have a higher threshold for alcohol’s sedative effects
  • They may be at a higher risk for developing alcoholism

Alcohol affects the hypothalamus, which controls primitive functions like rage, sex drive, temperature regulation, appetite, and thirst

Regular alcohol consumption can cause changes in the HPA axis, resulting in more cortisol being released at baseline when not drinking

  • This leads to increased stress and anxiety when not consuming alcohol

Long-​​term plastic changes in neural and hormone circuitry can result from chronic alcohol consumption

  • Can lead to less resilience to stress, higher baseline stress, and lower mood overall

Genes involved in alcoholism are primarily related to serotonin receptors, GABA receptors, and the HPA axis

  • Combine with environmental factors like social pressures, trauma, and patterns of abuse

People with low levels of alcohol dehydrogenase may feel sick from alcohol consumption

  • More common in certain Asian cultures

Starting to drink at a younger age greatly increases the risk of developing alcohol dependence

  • Delaying the onset of drinking can reduce the probability of developing alcohol use disorder

Alcohol disrupts gut microbiome

  • Kills healthy gut bacteria
  • Allows bad bacteria to pass from gut to bloodstream

Alcohol metabolism in the liver is pro-inflammatory

  • Increases release of inflammatory cytokines (e.g., IL‑6, TNF-alpha)

Converging effects of disrupted gut bacteria and liver inflammation in the brain

  • Disrupts neural circuits controlling alcohol intake
  • Leads to increased alcohol consumption

Focusing on gut microbiome may help those who have previously consumed alcohol heavily or are trying to reduce alcohol intake and improve health

Weaning off alcohol can lead to increased cortisol levels, causing anxiety and stress

  • It’s important to expect and manage this stress during the process

Hangovers can cause anxiety due to increased cortisol levels from alcohol consumption

Alcohol disrupts sleep quality, affecting slow wave sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep

  • Even one drink can negatively impact sleep quality

Headaches during hangovers are caused by vasoconstriction, a rebound effect after alcohol-​​induced vasodilation

  • Nonsteroidal anti-​​inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can alleviate headaches, but may have negative effects on liver and gut microbiome

Drinking more alcohol (hair of the dog) is a bad idea, as it only delays and worsens the hangover

Cold exposure, such as cold showers, may help with hangover relief by increasing epinephrine levels and potentially accelerating alcohol metabolism

  • However, be cautious with cold exposure during a hangover, as alcohol lowers core body temperature and can be dangerous when combined with cold water immersion

Factors contributing to hangovers:

  • Disturbed sleep
  • Disrupted gut microbiome
  • Dehydration and disrupted electrolytes
  • Depletion of epinephrine and dopamine

Hangover severity is not directly related to sugar content in alcoholic drinks

  • Hangover severity is associated with the presence of conjuners (e.g., nitrites) in alcohol

Resveratrol in red wine is not a strong argument for health benefits

  • The amount of red wine needed for resveratrol benefits would cause other negative effects

Low to moderate red wine consumption (1–4 glasses per week) may have some positive effects

  • Stress reduction and other micronutrients in red wine could contribute to health benefits

Increased risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer

  • 4–13% increase in risk for every 10 grams of alcohol consumed
  • Alcohol alters DNA methylation and gene expression, leading to increased cancer risk

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome

  • Diminished brain, limb, and organ development in the fetus

Consumption of folate and B vitamins (especially B12) may partially offset the increased cancer risk associated with alcohol consumption

  • This is not a guarantee and does not completely eliminate the risk

Alcohol can increase the conversion of testosterone to estrogen

  • In females, this may increase the risk of estrogen-​​related cancers (e.g., breast cancer)
  • In males, this can lead to growth of breast tissue, diminished sex drive, and increased fat storage


Science-​​based tools and supplements that push the needle.

Strategies to Alleviate Hangovers


Ranking of Alcoholic Drinks by Hangover Severity



We recommend using this distillation as a supplemental resource to the source material.

  • What Alcohol Does to Your Body, Brain & Health

    Huberman Lab #86

    Huberman explores alcohol’s effects on the brain and body, including genetics, metabolism, inebriation, inflammation, and hangovers. Strategies for informed consumption are provided.

Full Notes

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