What Alcohol Does to Your Body, Brain & Health | Huberman Lab Podcast #86

What Alcohol Does to Your Body, Brain & Health | Huberman Lab Podcast #86

Effects of Alcohol Consumption (00:00:00)

  • The video discusses the effects of alcohol on human biology, including its influence on cells, organs, and organ systems.
  • The impacts of inebriation on thinking and behavior are also analyzed.
  • Questions regarding the health implications of low to moderate drinking versus zero alcohol consumption are addressed.
  • The video covers the potential damage caused by excessive alcohol intake, including binge drinking, and provides solutions for dependence or overconsumption.
  • Effects of alcohol on youth are also discussed, with emphasis on why it's particularly detrimental.
  • Discussions about genetic differences concerning alcohol and alcoholism are included.

Momentous Supplements (00:02:25)

  • Huberman Lab Podcast is now partnered with Momentous Supplements, offering high quality, single-ingredient supplements.
  • Momentous Supplements allows users to build a supplementation protocol optimized for cost and effectiveness.

Low to Moderate Alcohol Consumption & Neurodegeneration (00:03:19)

  • The video explores the impacts of low to moderate alcohol consumption on brain health and neurodegeneration.
  • High levels of alcohol consumption are linked to neurodegeneration, particularly affecting the neocortex.
  • A recent study indicates even low to moderate drinking could result in cortical thinning and loss of neurons.
  • This key information helps viewers understand the potential negative implications of chronic alcohol intake (one or two drinks per night) on brain health.

Levels, Eight Sleep, ROKA (00:06:52)

  • The podcast sponsorship includes partnerships with Levels (a continuous glucose monitor), Eight Sleep (a smart mattress cover with cooling, heating, and sleep tracking capacity), and ROKA (high-quality eyeglasses and sunglasses designed with performance and aesthetics in mind).

Historical Context & Uses of Alcohol (00:10:46)

  • Humans have been consuming alcohol for thousands of years, with archeological evidence showing the existence of wine vessels from Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago.
  • The first distillation of alcohol didn't occur in Ireland, but in China in the first century.
  • Alcohol has been historically used for nutritional purposes, with some cultures valuing alcohol for its calorie content.
  • Alcohol has also been used for medicinal purposes due to its bactericidal properties. However, it also kills beneficial gut bacteria, leading to various health issues like leaky gut syndrome.
  • Alcohol is utilized in laboratories to create reagents for experiments.
  • Most people consume alcohol to alter their internal state and experience different feelings, despite the potentially negative after-effects like decreased happiness, reduced motivation, and increased stress.

Alcohol Metabolism, “Empty Calories” (00:13:28)

  • Alcohol, due to its structure, is both water-soluble and fat-soluble, allowing it to pass into all cells and tissues in the body.
  • There are three main types of alcohol: isopropyl, methyl, and ethyl. Only ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is consumable by humans but it's still toxic and causes substantial stress and damage to cells.
  • When consumed, ethanol is converted in the body into acetaldehyde, a toxic substance that harms and kills cells, using the molecule NAD.
  • Acetaldehyde is then converted to acetate, which the body can use as fuel. The conversion to acetate generates energy but is metabolically costly and provides no nutritive value (making it 'empty calories'), supplying no vitamins, amino acids, or fatty acids.
  • The process of metabolizing alcohol is not always efficient, which could lead to the buildup of acetaldehyde, further damaging the cells, particularly in the liver.

Inebriation: Top-Down Inhibition, Impulsivity & Memory Formation (00:18:23)

  • Being drunk is induced by acetaldehyde, a poisonous byproduct of alcohol that affects neural circuits.
  • Chronic and regular drinkers, as well as those with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, generally have longer periods of feeling good after drinking.
  • Casual drinkers have a shorter duration of enjoying euphoric feelings and transition more quickly into tiredness and loss of motor skills.
  • The effects of alcohol can be distinctive based on susceptibility to alcoholism and regularity of drinking.
  • Alcohol enters the stomach, is converted in the liver to acetaldehyde and acetate, where some of it crosses the blood-brain barrier.
  • The brain regions primarily impacted by alcohol include the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in impulse inhibition and planning.
  • The consumption of alcohol leads to a reduction in the inhibition of impulsive behaviors and a lack of forethought.
  • Alcohol significantly suppresses the neural networks responsible for memory formation and storage.
  • The effects of alcohol can range from simple tipsiness to excessive energy and happiness.

Long-Lasting Effects & Impulsivity, Neuroplasticity & Reversibility (00:24:23)

  • Regular alcohol consumption diminishes the function of the prefrontal cortex, leading to increased habitual and impulsive behavior.
  • The brain's neural circuits controlling habitual and impulsive behavior are altered and strengthened by regular drinking, even if it's not daily.
  • These neuronal changes can lead to increased habitual and impulsive behavior even outside drinking times.
  • The structural change involves an increase in the synapses (connections) in neural circuits controlling habitual behavior and a decrease in circuits controlling other behaviors.
  • A period of abstinence ranging from two to six months can reverse these alterations in neural circuits to their original state.
  • However, for those who have undergone chronic heavy drinking for many years, some long-lasting impacts remain even after sobriety.

Food & Alcohol Absorption (00:27:55)

  • The alcohol's biochemical effects vary based on body weight, tolerance, genetic background, and whether one has eaten before drinking.
  • Consuming food before drinking slows the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, reducing the feeling of being drunk fast.
  • If alcohol is already in the bloodstream, eating something doesn't sober one up faster but can lessen the effects of any additional alcohol consumed.
  • Ingested alcohol can enter the bloodstream within five to ten minutes.

Alcohol & Serotonin, SSRIs & Depression, Risk for Alcoholism, Blackouts (00:30:07)

  • Alcohol affects the biochemical and neurochemical functioning of the brain, significantly impacting the activity of neurons controlling serotonin, a neuromodulator related to mood and feelings of well-being.
  • There's been incorrect interpretation of a study on serotonin, concluding that SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) aren't helpful as they increase serotonin levels not necessarily associated with depression.
  • SSRIs can help alleviate depression, but not necessarily by increasing serotonin. The drugs likely facilitate changes in neural circuits involved in mood, enhancing our brain's ability to change itself in response to experience.
  • Alcohol consumption affects functioning of circuits in the brain that use serotonin, causing initial hyperactivity followed by a significant drop in activity. This is experienced as elevated mood at the start of alcohol intake and a decline in mood as alcohol wears off.
  • Continuous alcohol consumption does not restore the initial elevated mood; instead, it increases suppression. Excessive intake affects motor coordination and alertness, eventually causing one to pass out.
  • A small subset of people, often chronic drinkers or those with certain gene variants, become more alert with increased alcohol consumption. These individuals often possess an increased risk for alcoholism.
  • There's a distinction between 'passing out' and 'blacking out'. Blackout refers to the situation where one is functional, including performing complex tasks, but has no memory of the period due to the neurons in the hippocampus (related to memory formation) being shut off.
  • If an individual has experienced being blackout drunk multiple times, that person should be concerned about the risk of alcoholism and potential long-lasting effects of alcohol consumption.

Predisposition for Alcoholism; Chronic Consumption, Cortisol & Stress (00:37:39)

  • Various factors, including drinking speed and type of alcohol, can influence whether individuals feel sedated or not after consuming alcohol. This might indicate their predisposition to alcoholism.
  • Alcohol impacts the brain by interfering with the communication between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands - collectively called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This axis regulates stress responses.
  • Alcohol consumption affects the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls primitive functions such as rage, sex drive, and temperature regulation.
  • Regular alcohol consumption, even in moderate amounts, can cause long-term changes to the HPA axis. This can lead to increased cortisol (stress hormone) levels even when individuals are not drinking, causing them to feel more stressed and anxious.
  • Persistent increases in cortisol levels from regular drinking can lead to increased stress when not drinking, diminished mood and feelings of wellbeing, and a greater desire to drink more to regain a state of normalized stress and mood levels.
  • Long-term changes in neural and hormone circuitry can occur from several months to years of certain drinking patterns.
  • Even common patterns of alcohol consumption can result in adverse changes to neural and hormone circuitry, leading to less resilience to stress, higher baseline stress levels, and lower mood overall.

AG1 (Athletic Greens) (00:44:53)

  • AG1 by Athletic Greens is an all-in-one drink containing vitamins, minerals, probiotics, adaptogens, and digestive enzymes.
  • The speaker has taken AG1 since 2012 and takes it twice a day for its benefits to vitamin and mineral intake and gut microbiome health.
  • The gut microbiome links to the immune system and the gut-brain axis, impacting mood, energy, and focus levels essential for daily and high-performance endeavors.
  • There's a special offer at athleticgreens.com/huberman where customers can receive five free travel packs and a year's supply of Vitamin D3 K2 with every order.

Genetic Predisposition for Alcoholism, Consuming Alcohol Too Young (00:46:07)

  • The genetic predisposition to alcoholism is influenced by various genes, primarily those related to the control of serotonin receptors, GABA receptors, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
  • These genes combined with environmental factors like social settings, trauma, and patterns of abuse can lead to alcohol use disorders.
  • Some genetic variants may lead to a high level of the enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase, which aids in the metabolism of alcohol. People with these variants can drink more without feeling sick and thus might be more susceptible to becoming alcoholics due to environmental pressures.
  • Additionally, those with less alcohol dehydrogenase might feel sick immediately upon consuming alcohol. This discourages further alcohol consumption.
  • However, it is not a single gene that determines a predisposition to alcoholism. A family history of chronic alcohol abuse could be indicative of a genetic predisposition.
  • Age of first alcohol consumption is a significant predictor of alcohol dependence. Individuals who start drinking at a younger age are at a greater risk for developing alcoholism, regardless of family history.
  • Even if there is a genetic predisposition towards alcoholism, if the onset of drinking is delayed, the probability of developing an alcohol use disorder decreases.
  • Alcohol use disorders are a result of a combination of both genetic and environmental factors; no single gene or factor decides a person's likelihood of becoming an alcoholic.

Gut-Liver-Brain Axis: Alcohol, Gut Microbiome, Inflammation & Leaky Gut (00:52:27)

  • Alcohol can have harmful effects on the gut-liver-brain axis, especially when consumed in a typical chronic pattern such as one or two drinks a night or a few stacked up on weekends.
  • Alcohol disrupts the gut microbiome, killing both beneficial and harmful bacteria. It also promotes the release of inflammatory molecules in the liver.
  • This disruption leads to a leaky gut syndrome, allowing harmful bacteria and partially digested food to escape from the gut into the bloodstream.
  • These changes in gut biome and inflammation can lead to an increase in the desire to consume more alcohol, exacerbating the situation further.
  • Chronic heavy drinking can lead to inflammation in multiple places in the brain and body.

Tool: Improving/Replenishing Gut Microbiome (00:59:46)

  • Some negative effects of alcohol consumption could potentially be mitigated by replenishing the gut microbiome.
  • Ways to improve gut microbiota and reduce inflammation include consuming two to four servings of fermented foods (excluding alcoholic beverages) such as kimchi, sauerkraut, natto, kefir, or low-sugar yogurts daily. These foods have been shown to reduce inflammatory markers and improve the gut microbiome.
  • This method has not been examined specifically in the context of alcohol use disorder, but it is expected to be beneficial.

Reducing Alcohol Consumption & Stress (01:02:44)

  • Consuming less alcohol or quitting altogether can result in an increase in stress and anxiety due to heightened cortisol levels. This increase in stress should be expected and can dissipate over time.
  • Tools and techniques to help manage stress during this period can be beneficial and include behavioral, nutritional, supplementation-based, and exercise-based methods.

Hangover: Alcohol & Sleep, Anxiety, Headache (01:04:25)

  • Hangover results from alcohol consumption, manifested through headaches, nausea, and "hangxiety", which is anxiety that occurs after drinking.
  • Alcohol intake increases the level of cortisol, which can lead to the experience of hangxiety.
  • Hangxiety can be managed through behavioral, nutritional, and supplement-based methods.
  • Other hangover symptoms, like stomachache, headache, feeling of malaise or fogginess, may be related to numerous factors.
  • Sleep quality is adversely affected by alcohol, even if it's just one glass of wine or beer. Consequently, after the consumption of alcohol, the architecture of sleep is disrupted causing poor quality and non-restorative sleep.
  • Overconsumption of alcohol results in what is referred to as pseudosleep, characterized by multiple episodes of waking up, which impacts one's overall restfulness.
  • Alcohol also disrupts gut microbiome which contributes to hangover effects. As a countermeasure, low-sugar fermented foods or prebiotic or probiotics can be ingested to support the gut microbiome before or after drinking.
  • Hangover-associated headaches are results of vasoconstriction, the constriction of blood vessels following a night of drinking. While some people tend to use non-steroid anti-inflammatories to alleviate these headaches, it could impose potential risks on the liver and gut microbiome.
  • Traditional advice for hangover relief, such as eating food or ingesting more alcohol, either do not work or exacerbate the problem. Ingesting more alcohol only offers temporary relief and leads to an even worse hangover.

Hangover Recovery, Adrenaline & Deliberate Cold Exposure (01:12:11)

  • There is some evidence suggesting that increasing levels of epinephrine (adrenaline) in the bloodstream can help with alcohol clearance, potentially accelerating alcohol metabolism and reducing the inebriating effects of alcohol.
  • One method to boost adrenaline levels is deliberate cold exposure, such as cold showers or ice baths.
  • However, care must be taken when using cold exposure for hangover treatment, particularly if alcohol is still in the system. Alcohol can lower core body temperature, causing hypothermia, and combining this with cold exposure can lower the body temperature further, potentially leading to dangerous conditions.
  • Once alcohol has largely cleared from the system, cold exposure can be used safely to increase adrenaline and dopamine levels, which might accelerate hangover recovery.
  • Cold exposure should be carefully performed, with the duration and temperature varying according to the individual's tolerance and safety.

Hangover Recovery, Dehydration & Electrolytes (01:17:16)

  • A hangover is a multifaceted phenomenon, caused by various factors including disturbed sleep, disrupted gut microbiome, disrupted electrolytes, and depletion of epinephrine and dopamine.
  • Alcohol can cause dehydration due to its diuretic effect and disrupt the balance of electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium which are crucial for proper neuron function.
  • To counteract these effects, maintaining a proper balance of electrolytes before drinking is ideal. Consuming two glasses of water (preferably with electrolytes) for every glass of alcohol could mitigate alcohol's dehydrating effect.
  • Replenishing the microbiome with low-sugar fermented foods, performing safe deliberate cold exposure to increase adrenaline and dopamine levels, and consuming electrolytes can all be beneficial in reducing hangover effects.
  • Despite various claims, no single compound or substance has been proven to fully eliminate hangover symptoms, likely due to the multifactorial nature of hangovers. Instead, a combination of several powerful interventions may be most effective for hangover relief.

Types of Alcohol & Hangover Severity, Congeners (01:20:45)

  • The severity of a hangover is influenced by the type of alcohol consumed.
  • Contrary to popular belief, high sugar content in alcoholic drinks does not necessarily increase the severity of hangovers.
  • Alcoholic drinks such as beer, when consumed within an individual's tolerance, i.e., one or two beers, are less likely to cause a hangover than whiskey.
  • A glass of whiskey is more prone to cause a hangover than gin; rum or red wine is more likely to cause a hangover than any previously mentioned drinks.
  • Brandy induces the severest hangover among the listed alcohols.
  • Among all alcoholic drinks, including those mixed with juices like orange juice, ethanol diluted in orange juice is the least likely to induce a hangover, countering the perception that sugar content of a drink impacts the hangover severity.
  • The factor that increases the severity of hangovers from consuming different types of drinks is the concentration of congeners, including nitrites, substances contributing to alcohol's distinctive flavor and inebriating effects.
  • The disruptive effect of congeners on the gut microbiome is significant, highlighting the importance of maintaining a healthy gut microbiome for reducing the impacts of a hangover.
  • Thus, supporting the gut microbiome appears to be the most effective strategy to mitigate hangovers, instead of consuming more alcohol or avoiding it altogether.

Alcohol Tolerance, Dopamine & Serotonin, Pleasure-Pain Balance (01:25:25)

  • Alcohol tolerance signifies reduced effects of alcohol with repetitive exposure, happening primarily due to changes in brain neurotransmitter systems caused by alcohol's toxicity, notably, the Acetaldehyde molecule.
  • Initial consumption of alcohol usually triggers increases in dopamine, providing feelings of motivation, craving, well-being and energy. However, over time, there is a long and slow reduction in dopamine and serotonin leading to a significant dip in mood.
  • Tolerance appears when alcohol consumption does not trigger the initial dopamine and serotonin surge leading to reduced feelings of well-being, an increase in feelings of malaise, and a lower threshold for alcohol's negative effects post-consumption.
  • Tolerance may lead individuals to consume more alcohol, consequently increasing alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme for metabolizing alcohol, and extending negative effects.
  • Abstaining from drinking can help these systems reset but the duration for a complete reset depends on the individual's drinking pattern.

Are There Any Positive Effects of Alcohol?, Resveratrol (01:33:36)

  • While resveratrol, found in red wine, is often cited as beneficial, the volume of red wine one needs to drink to obtain the healthy amount of resveratrol far exceeds a level that would induce other negative health effects.
  • Low-to-moderate red wine consumption, i.e., up to four six-ounce glasses per week, might provide some stress-reducing and health benefits due to other micronutrients. However, supporting evidence is minimal and not well-established in clinical trials.

Alcohol & Brain Thickness (01:35:42)

  • Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption of all types can decrease the thickness of the brain, directly affecting the amount of alcohol consumed.
  • Gray matter volume and white matter tracts shrink progressively with increased consumption of alcohol, which is highlighted in various studies.
  • The best alcohol consumption level considering health benefits would be zero drinks per week, and moderate to heavy drinkers should work towards quitting entirely or reducing their intake.

Alcohol & Cancer Risk: DNA Methylation, Breast Cancer Risk (01:37:11)

  • Alcohol-related toxins, such as acetaldehyde, can alter DNA methylation and gene expression, leading to an increased risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer.
  • The risk of breast cancer can increase by 4 to 13% for every 10 grams of alcohol consumed.
  • The amount of alcohol consumed per drink varies by country; for example, one standard drink in Japan contains 7-8 grams of alcohol, in the US it's 10-12 grams, and in Russia, it's as much as 24 grams.
  • As alcohol consumption increases, so does the risk of cancer due to alcohol's impact on cells, including changes in gene expression.
  • Alcohol both increases tumor growth and decreases the molecules that suppress and combat tumor growth.
  • It has been suggested that ingesting 10 to 15 grams of alcohol a day, comparable to one glass of wine in the US, is equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes a day in terms of cancer risk.

Mitigating Cancer Risk, Folate, B Vitamins (01:44:31)

  • There are methods that might partially offset some of the negative effects of alcohol, including the consumption of folate and B12 vitamins.
  • However, these methods are not a guarantee of reducing cancer risk or alcohol-induced predisposition to certain cancers.
  • These vitamins are linked to gene regulation pathways that can lead to tumor growth.
  • There is a suggestion that consuming adequate amounts of folate and B12 might partially offset some of the increased risk of cancer due to alcohol. However, this is not a surefire preventative measure.

Alcohol & Pregnancy, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (01:46:54)

  • Pregnant individuals should not consume alcohol due to the potential development of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which can lead to diminished brain, limb, and organ development in the fetus.
  • Some people erroneously believe that certain types of alcohol are safe for pregnant individuals to consume. This is incorrect. Alcohol is a toxin that disrupts cellular processes, impacting both the fetus's growth and development.
  • Because alcohol is both water and fat-soluble, consumption during pregnancy passes directly to the developing fetus.

Hormones: Testosterone & Estrogen Balance (01:50:58)

  • Effects of alcohol on hormones, specifically testosterone and estrogen, can lead to negative health outcomes.
  • Alcohol increases the conversion of testosterone to estrogen, which can lead to health problems such as estrogen-related cancers.
  • Regular ingestion of alcohol may thus lead to increased estrogen levels in both males and females.
  • Some studies have suggested that small amounts of alcohol ingestion can lead to increases in testosterone, although this claim is disputed.

Negative Effects of Alcohol Consumption (01:55:09)

  • While some people enjoy alcohol in moderation, it is worth noting the negative effects of alcohol on health.
  • Consumption of alcohol is recognized as being toxic to the cells of the body. Despite some belief in "hormesis" (the idea that small amounts of toxins can make the body stronger), this principle does not apply to alcohol.
  • Light to moderate consumption of alcohol, while less harmful than high consumption, is still not considered beneficial.
  • Alcohol can negatively impact the gut microbiome and stress system. It's also recommended that people consider alternative modes of stress modulation that don't involve alcohol consumption.

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