Here's How Alcohol Can Increase Your Risk for Alzheimer's

alcohol increases alzheimers

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago revealed alcohol may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by disrupting the way amyloid beta is cleared
  • Amyloid beta is a protein implicated in Alzheimer’s disease that can clump together in the brain, building up into groups of clumps or a sticky plaque that may disrupt cell-to-cell signaling
  • The study focused on rat microglial cells, which are immune system cells in the brain and spinal cord that actively work to clear amyloid beta in a process known as phagocytosis
  • Microglial phagocytosis was affected by alcohol, decreasing by about 15 percent after one hour of exposure
  • The study reveals that binge drinking or heavy alcohol consumption may make it more likely that the brain will accumulate these damaging proteins, contributing to the development of Alzheimer’s disease

By Dr. Mercola

Drinking alcohol has been found to have both a protective and damaging effect on the brain, depending on which study you read and how much alcohol is consumed. The jury is still out on whether light or moderate consumption may be good for your brain, but it's becoming increasingly clear that heavy drinking is not. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago even revealed how alcohol may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, by disrupting the way amyloid beta is cleared.

Amyloid beta is a protein implicated in Alzheimer's disease that can clump together in the brain, building up into groups of clumps or a sticky plaque that may disrupt cell-to-cell signaling.1 The study, published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation,2 reveals that binge drinking or heavy alcohol consumption may make it more likely that the brain will accumulate these damaging proteins, contributing to the development of Alzheimer's disease.

Alcohol May Disrupt Your Brain's Ability to Clear Harmful Amyloid Beta

The study focused on rat microglial cells, which are immune system cells in the brain and spinal cord that actively work to clear amyloid beta in a process known as phagocytosis. Researchers exposed the microglial cells to alcohol (in a level comparable to that found in people who drink heavily or binge drink), inflammatory cytokines, or a combination of alcohol and cytokines for 24 hours.

The expression of over 300 genes was altered following exposure to alcohol, while exposure to cytokines resulted in changes in more than 3,000 genes and the combined alcohol and cytokines exposure caused changes in over 3,500 genes. Many of the altered genes were involved in phagocytosis and inflammation.3 Notably, microglial phagocytosis was also affected by alcohol, decreasing by about 15 percent after one hour of exposure.

Although the tests were performed in isolated rat cells, which means real-life alcohol consumption in humans may lead to a different result, they suggest that alcohol may hinder the microglia's ability to clear amyloid beta, thereby increasing the risk of Alzheimer's. Speaking with Newsweek, the study's lead author, Douglas Feinstein, professor of anesthesiology in the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, suggested people at risk of developing Alzheimer's may want to be especially careful with alcohol consumption:4

"There is a large literature supporting the idea that low amounts of alcohol can be beneficial; not only peripherally but in the brain. However, it might be prudent that if someone is at risk to develop AD [Alzheimer's disease], they should consider to reduce their alcohol intake; and certainly avoid binge or heavy drinking."

Alcohol Linked to Dementia, Including Alcoholic Dementia

Drinking heavily is known to harm your brain and can lead to alcohol-related brain damage known as alcoholic dementia. The white matter in your brain is considered the "wiring" of your brain's communication system and is known to decline in quality with age and heavy alcohol consumption. While not a true dementia like Alzheimer's disease, the symptoms, such as problems with decision-making, slower reasoning and changes in behavior, can be similar.

However, unlike Alzheimer's, if you stop drinking alcohol it's possible to recover, fully or partially, from alcoholic dementia. That being said, heavy drinking or engaging in binge drinking is also linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, according to two reviews conducted by Alzheimer's Disease International and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).5

The Alzheimer's Society explained, "People who drink heavily over a long period of time are more likely to have a reduced volume of the brain's white matter, which helps to transmit signals between different brain regions.

This can lead to issues with the way the brain functions. Long-term heavy alcohol consumption can also result in a lack of vitamin thiamine B1 and Korsakoff's Syndrome, a memory disorder affecting short-term memory."6 It's also been suggested that alcohol may add to the cognitive burden seen in dementia via neuroinflammation.7

NAD and Niacin (Vitamin B3) Are Important if You Have Alcoholism, May Help With Alzheimer's

People with chronic alcoholism are at risk for niacin deficiency, both due to a reduction in dietary intake of niacin and interfering with the conversion of tryptophan to nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD, the dietary precursor of which is niacin).8 It's also thought that people with lower NAD levels naturally may be at increased risk of addiction, including to alcohol. NAD is also known to be depleted in Alzheimer's disease. Small doses of NAD (not time released) can be incredibly helpful when provided while weaning off alcohol.

The treatment helps to curb cravings for alcohol, detox the body, flushes alcohol (or other drugs) out of the system and relieves withdrawal symptoms. As a potent antioxidant, NAD helps to create energy in cells' mitochondria as well as increases the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain.9 What's more, it's being considered as an important therapeutic strategy to help maintain optimal function in the brain and possibly even treat Alzheimer's disease. According to a review in Current Opinion in Psychiatry:10

"Perturbations in the physiological homoeostatic state of the brain during the ageing process can lead to impaired cellular function, and ultimately leads to loss of brain integrity and accelerates cognitive and memory decline.

Increased oxidative stress has been shown to impair normal cellular bioenergetics and enhance the depletion of the essential nucleotides NAD+ and ATP. NAD+ and its precursors have been shown to improve cellular homoeostasis based on association with dietary requirements, and treatment and management of several inflammatory and metabolic diseases in vivo.

Cellular NAD+ pools have been shown to be reduced in the ageing brain, and treatment with NAD+ precursors has been hypothesized to restore these levels and attenuate disruption in cellular bioenergetics."

NAC May Help You Cut Back on Alcohol, Prevent Alzheimer's

If you're a social drinker who perhaps could benefit from cutting back on your drinking, also consider N-acetylcysteine (NAC). NAC is a form of the amino acid cysteine and is known to help increase glutathione and reduce the acetaldehyde toxicity11 that causes many hangover symptoms. In addition, NAC is known to reduce alcohol consumption and withdrawal symptoms in rodents and cut down cravings in humans.

In a study of people who averaged one drink a week (or binge drinking 0.3 days a month), NAC increased the likelihood of alcohol abstinence and reduced drinks per week and drinking days per week.12 Meanwhile, if you are planning to have a drink, try taking NAC (at least 200 milligrams) 30 minutes before to help lessen the alcohol's toxic effects.

NAC is a powerful antioxidant known to directly target free radicals, especially oxygen radicals, which is important since oxidative damage is believed to be involved in Alzheimer's disease. NAC, in turn, may decrease levels of oxidative damage by protecting mitochondrial function, and in so doing reduce Alzheimer's risk, especially when combined with lipoic acid (LA). As noted in a review published in Cell Journal:13

"Combination of both LA and NAC maximizes this protective effect suggesting that this may prevent mitochondrial decay associated with aging and age-related disorders such as AD. Antioxidant therapies based on LA and NAC seem promising since they can act on mitochondria, one key source of oxidative stress in aging and neurodegeneration."

As for whether or not alcohol can be good for your brain, there is some research showing that light-to-moderate drinking may have neuroprotective effects. For instance, consumption of up to three servings of wine daily is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease in elderly people without the apolipoprotein E4 (APoE4) gene, the gene thought to be most strongly associated with Alzheimer's disease.14

However, as James A. Hendrix, Alzheimer's Association director of global science initiatives, told Newsweek, "no one should start drinking alcohol as a means of lowering dementia risk."15

More Tips for Cutting Back on Drinking

If you believe you have an alcohol use disorder (alcoholism), seek professional help. If you drink excessively on occasion and would like to cut back, you can try keeping track of how much you drink and setting limits on how much (or little) to consume. You should also avoid places, activities and even people who may tempt you to drink and seek out new positive hobbies and friendships to replace them.16

Exercise is also essential. When you drink, it chemically alters your brain to release dopamine, a chemical your brain associates with rewarding behaviors. When you exercise, this same reward chemical is released, which means you can get a similar "buzz" from working out that you can get from alcohol. In one study, hamsters that ran the most consumed less alcohol, while less active hamsters had greater cravings for and consumption of alcohol.17

In addition, exercise may help to mitigate some of the risks of alcohol consumption. Longtime drinkers who exercise regularly have less damaged white matter in their brains compared to those who rarely or never exercise.18 As a bonus, exercise may also reduce declines in cognitive performance attributed to aging as well as protect against changes related to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.19

Key Strategies for Alzheimer's Prevention

Avoiding excess alcohol consumption is important in Alzheimer's prevention, but it's far from the only tool at your disposal. Dr. Dale Bredesen's (director of neurodegenerative disease research at the University of California, Los Angeles [UCLA] School of Medicine, and author of "The End of Alzheimer's: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline") ReCODE protocol actually evaluates 150 factors, including biochemistry, genetics and historical imaging, known to contribute to Alzheimer's disease.

This identifies your disease subtype or combination of subtypes so an effective treatment protocol can be devised. Prevention is far better than treatment, however, and for this it's important to focus on a diet that powers your brain and body with healthy fats, not net carbs (total carbohydrates minus fiber), i.e., a ketogenic diet. the ketogenic diet will help you optimize your health by converting from burning carbohydrates for energy to burning fat as your primary source of fuel.

You can learn more about this approach to improving your mitochondrial function, which is also at the heart of Alzheimer's disease, in my book, "Fat for Fuel." One of the most common side effects of being a sugar-burner is that you end up with insulin and leptin resistance, which it at the root of most chronic disease. Keep in mind that adopting the ketogenic diet along with intermittent fasting may further boost your results, especially if you have the ApoE4 gene.