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Drinking This Much Alcohol a Week Can Negatively Affect Your Brain

If you want to keep your brain sharp for the long term, keep this in mind before pouring a glass.

Alcoholic women with depressionPETER DAZELEY/GETTY IMAGES

Moderate drinking has been linked to cognitive decline

Pouring yourself a glass of wine at the end of each day may seem harmless, but according to a new study, moderate alcohol consumption could be changing your brain.

Published recently in PLOS Medicine, researchers analyzed 21,000 people and their alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom, and found participants who consumed over seven units of alcohol (which equates to around four standard alcoholic beverages in America) reported higher levels of iron in the brain. These higher iron level markers were located in the basal ganglia regions, which the study states is associated with worsening cognitive function.

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How iron affects the brain

Previous research has concluded that higher levels of iron can negatively affect the brain, and even increase the risk of neurological diseases.

While it is unclear whether iron is the primary cause or a secondary cause of cognitive decline, iron does affect protein aggregates in the brain, which plays a major role in the development of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Researchers have evaluated the relationship between alcohol and iron metabolism for years. Alcohol and iron have been connected to liver injury, and drinking up to two beverages a day has been associated with a significant elevation of iron overload in the body.

Even though more research connecting higher iron levels and cognitive function needs to be done, the new study shows that markers of higher basal ganglia iron have been “associated with slower executive function, lower fluid intelligence, and slower reaction times.”

All in all, the connection between alcohol consumption and higher levels of iron shows negative effects in multiple areas of the body including the liver and the brain.

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Moderate drinking can also affect other aspects of health

Experiencing higher levels of iron isn’t the only thing to be concerned about when it comes to drinking and how it affects your health. Even though the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans says “moderate” drinking of alcohol—consuming up to two drinks a day for men, or one drink a day for women—is fine for your health, other research contradicts this recommendation.

Sure, drinking red wine can benefit your health in some ways—it contains antioxidants that help reduce inflammation and even benefit heart health—having a regular drinking habit can negatively affect your health in other ways.

For starters, even if it seems like alcohol helps you fall asleep, drinking actually has the opposite effect; it wreaks havoc on your sleep and causes you to feel exhausted the following day. And that accounts for any amount of drinking. Moderate drinkers will experience decreased sleep quality by 24%, and light drinkers will even see a decrease of over 9%, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Because your body is working to metabolize the alcohol, your natural REM sleep cycles are interrupted, causing shorter sleep durations and a poor night of sleep.

Alcohol can also mess with your mental health. Even one day of drinking can lead to “drinking depression” because alcohol affects multiple neurological pathways in the brain. Even though drinking alcohol makes you feel good for the time being, it will shortly create a “come down” where you will experience feelings of anxiety, irritability, and depression.

Lastly, and probably more commonly known, drinking alcohol excessively can cause damage to the stomach and the liver. Alcohol causes inflammation around the lining of the stomach and liver, which not only creates uncomfortable abdominal pain for the drinker, but can also lead to more serious damage like ulcers and fatty liver disease.

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Couple toasting on a couch with glasses of white wineKlaus Vedfelt/getty images

How to make healthier drinking choices

Although drinking moderate amounts of alcohol is deemed to be fine for your overall health, cutting back on alcohol is never a bad idea. If cognitive decline is a concern, you could choose to limit your alcohol consumption to just four standard drinks a week (a standard drink equates to a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor). This can also help with improving your overall sleep quality, improving your mental health, and decreasing your risk of certain diseases.

If you’re looking to cut it out completely, being “sober curious” has become quite popular. From the rise of specialty mocktails to the increasing market for non-alcoholic liquor and beer, finding alcohol-free options has never been easier.

Looking to cut back? Here are 17 Tips to Drink a Little Less.

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.