Alcohol has been accepted as part of nearly all societies for ages. When many people think of socializing and entertainment, it’s often with a drink in hand. While most are familiar with excessive alcohol use and alcoholism, it’s not usually considered a dangerous drug. But nothing could be further from the truth.
In the U.S., approximately 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes.1 As of this writing, that is far more than flu or COVID-19. Underage drinking may interfere with normal brain development and can contribute to risk-taking behaviors that may result in injury, sexual assault and death.
Alcohol is addictive and it’s a known cytotoxic agent. Chronic, excessive alcohol consumption is known to cause neuronal dysfunction and brain damage.2 Studies also confirm that drinking small amounts of alcohol, such as 1 gram, is enough to accelerate brain aging.3
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 86.3% of adults ages 18 and over answered a survey reporting they had consumed alcohol during their lifetime. Another 70% had alcohol in the past year and 53.3% had a drink in the last month. In addition, it was noted that according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):4,5
“In 2018, 26.45 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month; 6.6 percent reported that they engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month.”
The rate and amount of alcohol consumption has led to the proliferation of a hangover remedies industry aimed at assisting those who over-imbibe. The unpleasant symptoms of a hangover can include excessive thirst and dry mouth, headaches and muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, and an increased sensitivity to light and sound.6
More severe symptoms occur with heavy drinking and may indicate alcohol poisoning. This is a life-threatening emergency and may be accompanied by confusion, seizures, low body temperature and slow or irregular breathing.
Early Work Shows Hangover Supplement Protects the Brain
One popular supplement designed to help reduce the effects of hangovers was the result of a 2012 landmark study7 in which scientists studied the active ingredient in the fruit of the Japanese Raisin Tree (Hovenia dulcis). Researcher Jing Liang, Ph.D., discovered dihydromyricetin (DHM) helped reduce hangover symptoms and appeared to protect the liver.
Liang was also interested in studying the effects it might have on the brain, including neurodegenerative diseases and aging. She theorized that just as DHM stops alcohol from affecting gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, it might also help restore functionality.
Liang joined the University of Southern California (USC) School of Pharmacy in 2014.8 During her research she identified a receptor pathway that may be a target for DHM in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
Daryl Davies from the same school shared that Liang has anecdotal evidence that DHM is effective against Parkinson’s disease. The team is also addressing a known limitation to studies involving traditional Chinese medicines, Davies explains:9
“A weakness of Chinese traditional medicines is that they’re hard to replicate. People understand that the location where wine grapes or coffee beans are grown makes a difference in flavor and quality, but they don’t seem to understand the concept when it comes to medications.
They think, ‘I can get DHM from China and put it into anything. Or I can grow Hovenia anywhere.’ But you have to understand how and where it was grown, how it was harvested, and then ensure quality and batch-to-batch consistency. What are the active ingredients and how are they administered?”
Recent Results Show Pathway DHM Uses Protects Liver
The most recent study10 built on the knowledge that DHM has liver protective properties. Researchers sought to understand the mechanism of action that appeared to ease hangover headaches, knowing that DHM increases the metabolism of alcohol. Liang found that “it activates a cascade of mechanisms that erase alcohol from the body very quickly.”11
The researchers say that when it comes to helping those with alcohol use disorders, there’s no known effective therapeutic agent that doesn’t come without major side effects. Their hope was to help those affected by diseases linked to alcohol consumption, which the World Health Organization12 estimates accounts for 5.1% of disease worldwide.
The researchers gave alcohol to 36 mice every day for two months.13 The doses were gradually increased until each mouse was consuming 30% of their total food from ethanol. The researchers then evaluated their livers for markers of stress.
Liang explained that as alcohol circulates throughout the body it affects the brain but is primarily metabolized in the liver. High levels of alcohol consumption over long periods of time are believed to cause significant liver damage. Davies, another researcher on the study, continued:14
“It’s like stepping on a tack; your brain says it hurts. During a hangover, the fogginess in your brain is an acute reaction to what’s going on in your body.”
The liver analysis revealed that the mice that consumed DHM demonstrated15 “reduced liver steatosis, liver triglycerides, and liver injury markers.” In a press release, the researchers wrote that the data also showed the intervention:16
- Produced more “ethanol-gobbling enzymes” in the liver, including alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH)
- Boosted the efficiency of ADH and ALDH
- Reduced lipid (fat) accumulation in liver tissue
- Reduced inflammatory agents, called cytokines
These findings may help with finding ways to prevent liver damage and potentially extend the life of those with alcohol use disorder. The researchers also hypothesize DHM may be able to extend liver function as an individual is waiting for a transplant and that it may help those who have received a transplant by improving their liver performance.
How Alcohol Damages the Liver and Brain
Alcohol has a significant impact on the entire body. While drinking, your body is forced to metabolize alcohol immediately as it doesn’t have a way to store it like proteins, carbohydrates and fats.17 It is the liver’s job to convert vitamins, nutrients and other substances into compounds the body can use. Alcohol is not different.
It takes about one hour to metabolize one alcoholic drink.18 However, the time frame extends with each subsequent drink. When the body reaches the maximum amount it can metabolize, the alcohol is left to circulate in the bloodstream, which affects the heart and brain.
Chronic use will destroy liver cells, resulting in scarring and cirrhosis of the liver. This can also lead to alcoholic hepatitis and liver cancer. The progression usually begins with fatty liver disease leading to alcoholic hepatitis and then cirrhosis. Common symptoms of liver damage include loss of appetite, abdominal tenderness and fatigue and weakness.19
In the USC study,20 researchers evaluated 17,308 human brain scans from people between 45.2 years and 80.7 years. They were interested in RBA, which is a measure of an individual’s brain age in relationship to their peers.21 Using the data from this study, drinking 12 ounces of beer daily, or almost daily, would increase the relative brain age by 0.28 years or 102.2 days. The researchers wrote:22
“Our analyses of alcohol intake frequency and RBA indicated that subjects who drank daily or almost daily had a significantly higher RBA compared to those who drank less frequently. Our finding was consistent with previous studies, which showed that heavy alcohol consumption was detrimental to the brain.”
Even Moderate Drinking Has Negative Effects
While the USC study team evaluated the effects of daily alcohol intake, even smaller amounts have a negative effect on your health. In one study23 from Seoul National University College of Medicine, researchers evaluated 414 middle-aged and older adults who were free from dementia and did not have an alcohol-related disorder.
They found that those who drank a moderate amount over the course of decades had a reduction in beta amyloid deposits in their brain compared to those who did not drink.
The reduction in amyloid deposits were only found in those who had been drinking for decades and not those who started drinking moderately more recently. However, the authors only looked at beta amyloid deposits and not whether the individuals had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
They also did not measure any other changes in the brain or other organs. While these limited study findings were positive, I do not recommend chronic drinking, regardless of the amount. Even within guidelines, drinking tends to cause far more harm than good. For more information see “Can Moderate Drinking Decrease Alzheimer’s Brain Proteins?”
Are We Minimizing the Risk of Alcohol?
Despite the high number of people who die from alcohol-related deaths every year, an increased risk of breast cancer,24 violence and relative brain aging, you don’t have to look far to find reports that alcohol may be healthful and moderate drinkers live longer lives.
In 2015, Anheuser-Busch launched its Global Smart Drinking Goals Campaign and debuted the Ab Inbev Foundation. The company, who endeared themselves to Americans using their famous team of giant Clydesdale horses, says that “The Foundation works through a collaborative model, with our staff, the City Pilot Steering Committees, and our partners.”25
A commentary in the British Journal The Lancet26 proposes the foundation has no different intent and no less hypocrisy than the Philip Morris International Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. In other words, a company divided against itself will not stand.
One arm of the company cannot realistically propose that people drink less while the advertising department woos customers with young Clydesdales and puppies. The Lancet says the Ab Inbev Foundation openly demonstrates unabashed conflicts of interest:27
“In fact, the foundation attracts senior UN and former US government officials to its board and funds and engages in policy making processes. Despite obvious conflicts of interest, the Anheuser-Busch InBev Foundation sponsors a US National Academies of Science forum on global violence prevention.”
Discover more about the deception, partnerships and conflicts of interest that led to most of society accepting alcohol in their daily lives in my previous article, “Why We Minimize Risks of Alcohol.”
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