Even in moderation, alcohol can have detrimental effects on health; nearly every organ in the body is vulnerable to some malady caused, exacerbated, or made more likely by alcohol. Immoderate alcohol consumption is even worse. Chronic drinking condemns the heart, liver, and brain to illnesses and functional deficits. Now studies indicate that even a single episode of binge drinking—five or more drinks in a day—can harm the brain as well. In fact, April 5 to 7 has been designated as Alcohol-Free Weekend, when people are urged to refrain from alcohol for 72 hours and learn about the healthy and social effects of drinking.
“We know that the extent of damage following alcohol exposure depends heavily on the manner in which it is consumed,” Kimberly Nixon, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at The University of Kentucky, said in a statement. “Human studies suggest that binge-pattern drinking is more closely associated with brain damage. One study, for example, reported that binge drinking at least once per month in adulthood significantly increases the risk of developing dementia later in life. Animal models help provide the critical information that binge drinking, which produces high blood alcohol levels, directly causes damage.”
One effect of a drinking binge is on insulin regulation, meaning drinking can lead to type 2 diabetes. In addition to contributing to obesity, which makes diabetes more likely, alcohol directly causes a condition called insulin resistance that is a precursor to diabetes. Alcohol causes inflammation in the hypothalamus, interfering with the body’s ability to properly use insulin. Patients in whom diabetes has already developed are generally advised to not drink at all or only in extreme moderation, and to absolutely not binge. However, patients in whom diabetes is well-controlled and who don’t have accompanying conditions alcohol exacerbates can usually drink occasionally if they carefully monitor blood sugar.
Alcohol also affects an area of the brain called the hippocampus. This seahorse-shaped region is responsible for collating and organizing memories and information about the world. Drinking alcohol, and particularly binging, can cause damage to this structure, leading to signs of brain damage—such as production of a protein called vimentin normally used to hold cell components in place—and contributing to possible dementia later in life.