alcohol

You may be boozing your brain cells away

Dec. 7, 2012 at 8:34 AM ET

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Naomi Piercey, Women's Health

A throbbing headache isn't the only side effect of overloading on alcohol. Chug too many cocktails and you may be putting your actual gray matter at risk. According to a new study from Rutgers University, consumption of alcohol, from moderate-level drinking to binge drinking (drinking less during the week and more on the weekends), can decrease the creation of adult brain cells by as much as 40 percent.

In this study researchers examined the brain cell development of rodents after consuming alcohol. When the blood alcohol level of the rats reached 0.08 percent--the legal driving limit--researchers found the number of nerve cells in the hippocampus of the brain were reduced by nearly 40 percent compared to those in the sober group. The hippocampus--where new neurons are made--is a section of the brain associated with long-term memory and some new types of learning.

This stage of intoxication is equivalent to approximately 3-4 drinks for women and five drinks for men.

"The purpose of the study was to underscore the long term effects of alcohol exposure," says Tracey J. Shors, PhD, professor of behavioral and systems neuroscience in the department of psychology at Rutgers University, who helped conduct the study. "It may not be detrimental to have one or two days of alcohol exposure, but week after week, you will have many fewer neurons in your brain," she said.

Why does booze have such a detrimental effect on your body? "Alcohol is a direct neurotoxin," explains Christine Gerbstadt, MD, MPH, RD. "So not only does it kill nerve cells, but it also interrupts absorption of important nutrients and alters the metabolism." Alcohol also affects the body's ability to regenerate, says Gerbstadt. which means besides killing useful cells, your body can't repair the damaged ones, either.

Ready to cut back? No need to cancel your girls' night out. Just be mindful about how much you're consuming--it might be more than you think. "Moderate drinking" is qualified as just two to three drinks a day, says Gerbstadt. One drink can be 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, 12 ounces of beer, or four ounces of wine. Choose smartly and follow Gerbstadt's imbibing guidelines to sip responsibly:

For every cocktail you drink, drink a glass of water. This guarantees that your rate of consumption is slower, and also keeps you hydrated (dehydration is a major reason why you feel like crap the day after).

Eat before you drink--and during. This slows the absorption of alcohol into the system.

Ask your bartender to add twice the amount of low-calorie mixer in your drink, which will diminish the percentage of alcohol in your drink overall.

Avoid drinks that include double shots of liquor or that combine several types of alcohol, like sugary smoothies, tropical drinks, and Long Island Iced Teas, for instance. Ordering a simple mixed drink with one type of alcohol can help you better track how much you've consumed.

Make your own wine spritzer by asking your bartender to mix your wine with seltzer or diet soda.

Also, Gerbstadt advises, don't be afraid to order a "virgin" drink (no alcohol at all). With a few cocktail straws and a wedge of lime, a club soda can look just like a cocktail. Only your brain cells will see the difference.

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