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Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

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Watch someone after they’ve had a few drinks, and you’ll find clear evidence that alcohol does something to their brain. They stumble, slur their words, lose control of their emotions, and forget things. 

Some people have tried to explain this behavior as the aftermath of cell death caused by alcohol. Often, it’s packaged as a neat factoid like “Three beers kill 10,000 brain cells.”

But is this true? No. But alcohol does damage some of your 86 billion brain cells, or neurons, which send electrical and chemical messages within the brain and between it and other parts of the body. 

Ethyl alcohol (the kind found in boozy beverages, also known as ethanol) can kill cells and microorganisms. That’s what makes it an effective antiseptic. Fortunately, when you drink alcoholic beverages, your body tries not to let all of that ethanol roam around unchecked. Enzymes in your liver convert it first info acetaldehyde (which is highly toxic) and then into acetate, which is broken down into water and carbon dioxide and eliminated by your body.

The liver can only work so fast, though, processing about 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits per hour. If you’re knocking drinks back fast enough that your liver can’t keep up, the excess alcohol hangs out in the blood and travels through the body until it can be processed. 

When this alcohol reaches the brain, it doesn’t kill the cells. What it does is inhibit the communication between dendrites, or branching connections at the ends of neurons that send and receive information between neurons, in the cerebellum, a part of the brain involved in motor coordination. This poor communication results in some of the typical impairments of intoxication. 

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that alcohol, even when applied directly to neurons, didn’t kill them. It just interfered with the way they transmit information. Specifically, the researchers showed that alcohol causes certain receptors on neurons to manufacture steroids that inhibit memory formation. 

Some alcoholics can experience neuron death as part of a brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. In these cases, the evidence again suggests that the disease and cell death aren’t caused by the alcohol itself, but a B1 (or thiamine) deficiency and general malnutrition that often go hand in hand with alcoholism. 

For moderate drinkers, a number of studies from the last 15 years suggest that, far from killing brain cells, a little tipple is actually associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia. 

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7 Hangover Cures Backed By Science
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Science has a lot to say about bogus hangover cures (coffee, hair of the dog, and saunas aren't doing you any favors), but not as much about which treatments are legitimate. That's not for a lack of trying: The quest to banish the headaches, nausea, and dizziness that follow a bout of heavy drinking has been going on for centuries. We still don't know how to prevent hangovers or how exactly they happen, but if you're feeling miserable after last night, there are a handful of science-based remedies that might ease your pain.

1. ASIAN PEAR JUICE

Have some extra Asian pears at home? Run them through your juicer before your next night out. According to researchers at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, just 7.4 ounces of Asian pear juice is enough to soften the blow of a hangover. The scientists say that the juice interacts with enzymes that break down alcohol, speeding up your metabolism and leaving less surplus alcohol for your body to absorb. There's just one catch: The juice must be consumed before you drink anything else in order to be effective. Apologies to anyone currently reading this through heavy-duty sunglasses.

2. MUSIC

Anyone who's ever suffered through a massive hangover knows that sound is the enemy. But while your roommate's 9 a.m. tap dancing practice might exacerbate your symptoms, music may have the opposite effect. Research has shown that listening to music can provide relief to migraines, which are similar to hangover headaches. As long as the music is pleasant and suits your taste, it should help to drown out the chorus of pain playing in your mind. Head sensitivity isn't the only symptom music helps with: According to researchers at the University of Edinburgh, listening to your favorite music also eases pain. There hasn't been research specifically on hangovers, but at the very least it should hide your pained cries.

3. SPRITE

If you're looking for something to nurse your hangover, skip the bloody Mary. A team of Chinese researchers found that Xue bi, the Chinese version of Sprite, is actually the best beverage to combat the lingering side-effects of alcohol. Of the 57 drinks tested, Sprite was the best at helping enzymes break down acetaldehyde, the metabolized version of ethanol that's blamed for some of the nastiest hangover symptoms. The scientists also identified which concoctions you should avoid: A drink containing herbs and hemp seeds was the worst offender, as it actually prolongs acetaldehyde metabolism instead of speeding it up. (We should also caution that this test was done in a lab and might not be applicable to actual drinking scenarios.)

4. PEDIALYTE

Although not the primary cause of your hangover, one of the many ways alcohol can leave you feeling worse for wear the morning after is dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic—it makes you pee a lot more than you would otherwise. If your fluids are depleted when you go to bed, you can expect to wake up feeling groggy, achy, and all-around not your best. Water is the simplest fix for dehydration, but for more extreme cases, there's Pedialyte. The drink was originally developed to rehydrate kids sick from vomiting and diarrhea, but it's marketed as a hangover treatment for adults as well. It contains nutrients, sodium, and other electrolytes—all things that can nurture your body when it's dehydrated. It won't cure the hangover, but it might help alleviate the worst of it.

5. ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DRUGS

If your first move when you're hungover is to reach for a bottle of aspirin, you have the right idea. Anti-inflammatory drugs may not do much to stop the underlying causes of your condition, but they can suppress your symptoms long enough for you to get out of bed without feeling like your head's been replaced with an anvil. On top of easing headaches and muscle pain, there's another reason these pills are good for hangovers: They may directly combat alcohol's inflammatory effects. But there's one over-the-counter painkiller you should never take while or after consuming alcohol, and that's Tylenol. Any drug that uses acetaminophen will only further abuse your recovering liver.

6. EGGS

The best way to tackle a hangover with food is to eat while you drink. Chowing down after the damage has already been done may distract you from your turmoil for a short while, but it won't soothe your physical symptoms. There are a few exceptions: Eggs, for example, have hangover-fighting potential thanks to a special ingredient. The food is packed with cysteine, an amino acid that breaks down the drinking byproduct acetaldehyde. So whether you prefer to enjoy brunch out or at home, make sure your meal includes eggs in some form.

7. HONEY ON TOAST

While you're at it, put some honey on toast next to your omelet. According to Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry, while it won't cure a hangover, the breakfast can help alleviate the symptoms: "The best breakfast is toast and honey (or golden syrup) which provides the body with the sodium, potassium, and fructose which it now needs." The BBC talked to a junior doctor about this hangover remedy and he recommended adding banana. While he cautions it's an acquired taste, the doctor explained, "Bananas are a high source of potassium—an electrolyte that gets depleted when you go out on the binge. The honey will give you that spike of sugar in your bloodstream and that energy rush to help you get back on your feet."

BONUS: DRINK LESS

While this is definitely the least helpful of all suggestions, in 2005 an article in the BMJ looked at 15 studies of hangover cures, noting that "the paucity of randomised controlled trials is in stark contrast to the plethora of ‘hangover cures' marketed on the internet." Their conclusion? "No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover. The most effective way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol induced hangover is to practise abstinence or moderation."

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11 Secrets of Bartenders
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Spend enough time at your local watering hole and it becomes apparent that the person slinging drinks behind the bar is so much more than just a human recipe book. They’re flavor experts possessing saint-like levels of patience, who can strike up a conversation with just about anyone. With that in mind, Mental Floss spoke to three bartenders about the one thing you should never order, how to stock your own bar, and the best way to approach the attractive stranger you just locked eyes with.

1. THEY'RE SMART ABOUT WHAT THEY SPEND MONEY ON.

Berkeley, California-based bartender Nat Harry suggests considering a drink's recipe before you shell out for top-shelf liquor. “Any time you have a spirit that’s going to be the star of the show, like in a Manhattan or a Martini, you’ll probably want something a bit nicer,” she explains. “But if you’re drinking a cocktail with aggressive or spicy mixers, like a Moscow Mule for example, that is not the time to order Ketel One or Belvedere."

According to a bartender at NYC’s Gordon Bar, whiskeys and tequilas are generally worth spending a bit more on. "The quality with both spirits does ramp up quickly," he says. "And the difference between top shelf and well is very noticeable."

2. THEY DO THEIR BEST TO KEEP AN OPEN MIND.

A smartly-dressed drunkard chats to a young lady at a bar in a theatre scene from 1933
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The customer is (almost) always right—but when they aren’t, you won’t hear it from whoever’s serving them drinks. “I don’t really judge people based on their orders, aside from an ‘Ooh, you just turned 21,’” Courtney Cowie, a Long Island-based bartender, says. “I’m a strong believer in liking and drinking whatever you want.” Harry adds that she does her best to put her own preferences aside when she steps behind the bar: “With experience, you realize the important thing about being a bartender is giving your guest a good experience. If someone orders something I might not find palatable, I’ll try to make the best version of that drink possible.”

3. BUT THEY WILL ROLL THEIR EYES OVER CERTAIN ORDERS.

Of course, there’s one (boozy) exception to the aforementioned rule: anyone who sidles up to the bar and orders a Long Island Iced Tea. “Even if you used all premium spirits, mixing all those flavors together will never be anything more than a hot mess,” Harry says. “Is there a decent amount of booze in there? Sure. But most cocktails, either by virtue of proof or volume of spirits can achieve that for you, and spare you the hangover you’re gonna have from all that sugar.” The Gordon Bar bartender agrees: “You know immediately their number one goal is to just get wasted.”

4. THEY DON’T MIND CREATING SOMETHING SPECIAL FOR YOU.

A barman at the St Mellons Club near Cardiff mixing cocktails for the Carlyle cousins, 1936
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 All three bartenders agreed that creating personalized drinks for customers is one of the best parts of the job—“It makes me feel respected!” says Cowie—with just one caveat. “I love it, but if I’m totally slammed behind the bar, that’s not a good time for a personalized drink,” Harry says.

If you're set on trying something different, get ready to field a few questions: “I always ask right away what they normally drink and what flavors they like, and then if they want to be adventurous,” the server at Gordon Bar says. “I like to get people out of their comfort zones.”

5. IT’S OK TO ASK YOUR BARTENDER TO TRY AGAIN … USUALLY.

Just not feeling the drink in front of you? It’s OK to ask for another. Says Harry, “I think customers are always entitled to a mulligan. I hate to watch someone pull a series of tortured faces if they aren’t enjoying something.” But that rule generally applies only if the bartender’s the one who led you astray. “The exception is when someone tries to order something ‘experimental’ and I try to talk them out of it, and then said experiment results in a yucky beverage,” Harry explains. “If you want to come up with crazy drink combinations, that’s what your home bar is for.”

6. ANYONE CAN INVENT HIS OR HER OWN SIGNATURE BEVERAGE.

Jessica Mitford with her husband Esmond Romilly behind the bar of the Roma Restaurant in Biscayne Bay, 1940
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 If you’re a beginner, Harry suggests following this simple formula: “It’s a safe bet to start with a base spirit, 80 proof or higher, a liquer, citrus, and then a sweetener if needed, or even bitters. After you get comfortable following the rules, you can start breaking them.” The most important rule of all, according to the source at Gordon Bar? “Always taste as you go!”

7. "MIXOLOGIST" IS MORE THAN JUST A PRETENTIOUS SYNONYM FOR "BARTENDER."

As the Gordon Bar employee notes, “A mixologist is more like a chef in that they spend a lot of time researching ingredients and comparing flavor profiles.” Unlike with sommeliers, there’s no single organization governing the profession. While there is currently a movement in favor of formalizing the training and certification process, most mixologists just learn on the job. As Harry puts it, “Every good mixologist should start by trying to be a good bartender first."

8. LOOKING TO PLEASE A CROWD? HERE’S WHAT YOU SHOULD KEEP AT HOME.

If you're setting up a home bar for the first time, there's no need to run out and buy one of everything. “Always have vodka, and then one whiskey, either a bourbon or a rye,” says the anonymous NYC-based bartender. “Those are essentials. And then a couple of bitters—like Angostura or Regan’s Orange—and high-quality club soda and fresh juice.” Harry suggests making your own simple syrup, too—”It’s cheap and easy, and lasts a long time in your fridge”—but as far as equipment goes, you can skip the elaborate gadgets and gizmos. The only “specialty bar tool” you really need, according to Cowie, is a shaker.

9. THEY COME READY TO CHAT.

Men gathered around a bartender, 1950
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 Even the most introverted bartenders know the small talk they dish out is almost as important as the beverage they’re stirring (or shaking). “We know a little bit about everything: sports, music, and pop culture usually have you covered,” Cowie says. “But if all of the above fails, we just ask questions.”

10. YOU CAN LET THEM PLAY CUPID.

Bartenders rarely mind helping their patrons make connections. “For folks who don’t want to stroll up and start chatting with a perfect stranger, ask the bartender if they can buy the person they like a drink,” Harry suggests. “I phrase it like that because I like to check in with the object of their affection before I start making it. Maybe they don’t want company, or maybe they’ve already had too many. But most of the time, it’s a yes, and they move down the bar to thank their benefactor.”

11. YES, THEY’RE PROS AT PREVENTING HANGOVERS.

A woman suffering from a hangover circa 1956
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 Experienced bartenders try not to get to a point where a hangover will be an issue, because they know there's no magic cure-all. “The best remedy is preventative care—one glass of water per every two drinks,” Cowie tells Mental Floss. “But if the deed is done, try energy drinks, lots and lots of water, and a huge breakfast.” Harry agrees that getting something in your stomach is key: “Bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich and a Coke. Bonus points for hash browns.”

This story originally ran in 2015.

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