Youthful binge-drinking or drinking heavily over the years – or both - may have lasting effects on your brain, damaging neurons and increasing your risk of dementia.
But there is good news: Omega-3 fatty acids appear to help protect the brain from the effects of alcohol abuse. Fish oil, a rich source of those healthy fats, may even help treat withdrawal and craving, though the science is still largely based on studies of rodents (Galduróz et al., 2020).
More good news: While heavy drinking is clearly damaging, it’s possible that moderate doses of alcohol give your brain a useful workout through a stress-response phenomenon known as hormesis (rather like the mild hypoxia one gets at high altitude, leading to overall health benefits). As with your muscles, the right level of challenge may make you stronger.
This is a complex topic, but if you want a definitive exploration of alcohol’s hormesis effects and the potential of light-to-moderate drinking to extend lifespan, see Alcohol and Aging: From Epidemiology to Mechanism (Adamson et al., 2017).
Add in a diet rich in omega-3s and you may have the optimal combination. In other words, live like a Celt and enjoy salmon before (or after) your Scotch!
Before we go further, I would emphasize that the apparent benefits of light-to-moderate alcohol consumption are subtle and rather controversial. If you don’t drink, don’t start simply to get health benefits – especially if you have trouble moderating your intake. More on this in a moment.
Alcohol and Omega 3 and the Brain
Omega-3 essential fatty acids found abundantly in seafood, specifically ALA, EPA, and DHA, tame inflammation in our nervous system. Ischemic stroke and trauma, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, epilepsy, and brain aging have all been linked to imbalances in essential fatty acids.
In animals, high exposure to alcohol depletes the brain of DHA, which stands for docosahexaenoic acid. Diet appears to play a role in their alcohol appetite: Rats fed lots of DHA opt to consume less alcohol than rats on a low-DHA diet (Galduroz et al., 2020).
One research team bathed cultures of rat brain cells in concentrations of alcohol equivalent to about four times the legal limit for driving – a proxy for the effects of alcohol abuse disorder in humans. Another set of cultures got the same alcohol bath plus a dose of DHA, and ended up with a remarkable 90 percent less inflammation and neuron death (Tajuddin et al., 2014).
Could Fish Oil Help People Quit?
Maybe. In a 2019 study, scientists fed mice a liquid diet laced with increasing amounts of alcohol over a month until they were dependent, and then took the alcohol away. As they endured withdrawal, the alcohol-dependent mice had fewer convulsions if they’d received a daily dose of fish oil before and during the experiment. The mice who received fish oil were also less eager to guzzle alcohol at their next opportunity than a control group of mice that hadn’t. In addition, the researchers saw positive effects of fish oil on the mice's brains (Shi et al., 2019).
Although there isn’t a persuasive study testing fish or fish oil on people trying to quit, there are some small relevant human studies. Researchers have found low-DHA blood levels in alcohol abusers (Umhau et al., 2013). Earlier, low-DHA blood levels had been linked to a higher vulnerability to relapses (Buydens-Branchey et al., 2009).
Studies on smokers have also found they typically have low-DHA blood levels. And there is early evidence that fish oil capsules, which can increase DHA in the blood, can cut nicotine craving (Galduroz et al., 2020).
Is Moderate Drinking Helpful?
Setting aside fish oil effects for the moment, recent news has brought up the long-standing controversy over how much, if any, drinking is safe.
In the newly released version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the government stayed with its previous advice: Men should stick to two drinks a day and women to one (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020). A drink is defined as roughly 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits.
Not everyone was pleased, since the advisory panel of scientists had recommended lowering the limit for men to one drink, citing evidence that links drinking to several cancers and cardiovascular diseases. The new report acknowledges evidence which “suggests that even drinking within the recommended limits may increase the overall risk of death” and the risk for some cancers.
However, there’s more to the story. Reviewing the totality of the evidence, it appears that moderate drinking may be beneficial to the heart and circulatory system, and may protect us against type 2 diabetes and gallstones, according to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits, 2020).
As I mentioned earlier, it’s also possible that moderate drinking provides a useful challenge to brain cells, making them fitter. A 2011 meta-analysis pooling about 75 studies found that men and women who drank within recommended limits—two drinks a day for men and one for women—had a slightly lower risk of dementia. The authors had found earlier that six days of “moderate alcohol exposure” protected rat brain cell cultures from the negative effects of amyloid-β,1 the protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease, by triggering survival mechanisms (Neafsey et al., 2011).
So if you enjoy light to moderate drinking, it appears you won’t go far wrong if you stick with the recommended daily limits and up your omega-3s, which happen to have a wide variety of protective effects beyond protection from alcohol’s bad side, as we’ve chronicled in these pages.
To be clear, no research has discovered that heavy or binge drinking is healthful, no matter how much fish or fish oil one consumes. But for those who can consume responsibly, it appears there’s probably no harm and perhaps some benefit in glazing your salmon with bourbon, cooking your mussels in beer, and nursing a single-malt.
Adamson, S., Brace, L., & Kennedy, B. (2017, September 27). Alcohol and aging: From epidemiology to the mechanism. Retrieved February 05, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2468501117300111
Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/drinks-to-consume-in-moderation/alcohol-full-story/#possible_health_benefits Published November 12, 2020.
Buydens-Branchey L, Branchey M, Hibbeln JR. Low plasma levels of docosahexaenoic acid are associated with an increased relapse vulnerability in substance abusers. Am J Addict. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19219668/ Published Jan-Feb, 2009.
Collins, Michael. Alcohol abuse and docosahexaenoic acid: Effects on cerebral circulation and neurosurvival. Brain Circulation. https://www.braincirculation.org/article.asp?issn=2394-8108;year=2015;volume=1;issue=1;spage=63;epage=68;aulast=Collins Published 2015.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/. Published December 2020.
Galduróz JCF, Bezerra AG, Pires GN, Pauluci R, Noto AR. OMEGA-3 Interventions in Alcohol Dependence and Related Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Propositions. Curr Neuropharmacol. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7457439/ Published May, 2020.
Neafsey EJ, Collins MA. Moderate alcohol consumption and cognitive risk. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3157490/ Published 2011.
Umhau JC, Zhou W, Thada S, et al. Brain docosahexaenoic acid [DHA] incorporation and blood flow are increased in chronic alcoholics: a positron emission tomography study corrected for cerebral atrophy. PLoS One. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3788756/ Published October 2, 2013
Tajuddin N, Moon KH, Marshall SA, et al. Neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration in adult rat brain from binge ethanol exposure: abrogation by docosahexaenoic acid. PLoS One. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25029343/ Published Jul 16, 2014.
Shi, Z., Xie, Y., Ren, H., He, B., Wang, M., Wan, J. B., Yuan, T. F., Yao, X., & Su, H. Fish oil treatment reduces chronic alcohol exposure induced synaptic changes. Addiction biology. https://doi.org/10.1111/adb.12623 Published July, 2019.