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The neuroscience of drinking and how it affects the brain

Summer Martin
drinking, alcohol, sober


Have you ever wondered what exactly is going on in your brain when you’re enjoying a glass of wine or a cold beer? If you’ve pondered this question, you’re not alone. The neuroscience of drinking has been the subject of extensive research for decades, and there’s more to it than just the intoxicating “buzz” we feel. 

As we approach Sober October – a month-long challenge encouraging people to abstain from alcohol – it’s a perfect time to assess our relationship with drinking. Understanding how alcohol affects the brain can do more than prepare us for the challenge. It can help us make informed decisions about our drinking habits all year round, leading to improved wellness, better sleep tracked by our sleep tracker headband, and even saved dollars. 

In this blog post, we’ll dive into the immediate and long-term effects of alcohol on the brain and explore how we can be smarter about our drinking choices – thanks in part to our collaboration with Sunnyside, a mindful drinking app. 

Ready to dive into the science behind that sip? Let’s get started. 


The brain on booze: the immediate impact and beyond

So, you’ve taken that first sip, and within minutes, you start to feel different. Why? The moment alcohol enters your bloodstream, it works its way to your brain, altering essential neurotransmitters, like dopamine, and leading to a cascade of physiological and psychological changes. 

From neurotransmitters to that “buzz”

Alcohol primarily targets a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This neurotransmitter inhibits brain activity, leading to feelings of relaxation and reduced anxiety. On the flip side, alcohol also inhibits the release of another neurotransmitter, glutamate, which typically increases brain activity. The result? A double-whammy of slowed brain function that makes you feel calmer but also less sharp. [1]

Recent research has also shown that excessive alcohol consumption can impair the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new neural connections. [2] This is critical for learning and memory, which underscores the importance of moderate drinking for long-term cognitive health. 

Protect your brain: Consider incorporating antioxidants like vitamins C and E into your diet to combat the oxidative stress that alcohol can cause on your brain.

Short-term consequences you might wake up to

While the initial buzz can be enjoyable, it’s followed by a slew of short-term consequences. We’ve all heard of hangovers, but did you know they’re partly the result of alcohol messing with your sleep cycle? Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but the quality of sleep you get is often poor. You’re likely to wake up feeling groggy and unrested, which could affect your mental performance and mood for the entire day. [3] Using our wearable headband, Muse S Headband, you can get insights into the quality of sleep you get after drinking.[4

The chemical imbalance

Over time, continued use of alcohol can lead to an imbalance of these neurotransmitters, making your brain reliant on alcohol to feel “normal.” This can result in withdrawal symptoms, increased anxiety, and a host of other problems when alcohol is not consumed. 

But that’s not the end of the story. Alcohol also releases dopamine, the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, creating that feel-good experience. However, with frequent drinking, you’ll need more alcohol to achieve the same dopamine high, setting the stage for potential dependency. [5]

sober october, beer, alcohol


Pour decisions: the lasting effects of alcohol

If you think the effects of alcohol stop once you’ve sobered up, think again. Regular heavy drinking has long-term implications that go beyond the occasional hangover or embarrassing text message. 

Cognitive and memory impairments

The long-term consumption of alcohol is associated with cognitive deficits that can affect your memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. Alcohol can also impair the formation of new memories, a phenomenon known as “blackouts.” The hippocampus, a region of the brain crucial for memory, is particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. [6]

Emotional roller coaster

Long-term drinking can lead to mood swings, depression, and increased anxiety. While many people use alcohol as a way to cope with stress or emotional pain, the irony is that the substance often exacerbates these issues over time. 

Hit on your physical health

The brain isn’t the only organ taking a hit. Liver disease, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of stroke are some of the well-documented physical effects of long-term drinking. [7]

Alcohol units: Do you know how many units of alcohol are in your favorite drink? Awareness can be the first step in making smarter drinking choices.

friends, drinking, alcohol


Finding a middle ground: how to drink smarter with Sunnyside

Not all hope is lost when it comes to enjoying alcohol in a healthier way. While it’s crucial to be aware of the risks, there are modern solutions designed to help you drink smarter. 

Why mindful drinking?

Mindful drinking is all about being present and making conscious choices about your alcohol consumption. Rather than telling you to quit cold turkey, the concept encourages a balanced approach. You can still enjoy social events, have fun, and be in the moment – just without the negative after-effects that excessive drinking can bring. 

Meet Sunnyside, your mindful drinking coach

Sunnyside is a mindful drinking app that’s got your back. Sunnyside helps you reach your goals and sustain them in the long term through three scientifically proven superpowers:

  1. Pre-commitment: At the beginning of each week, you’ll set an intention that includes a tracking goal, a drink goal, and optionally, a dry day goal. By establishing clear targets, you become more accountable and aware of your drinking habits.
  2. Conscious interference: After each drink, the app prompts you to log it. This simple act creates a mindful pause, giving you the chance to consider whether you really want another drink, thereby helping you stay within your set limits.
  3. Positivity: We get it; changing ingrained habits can be tough. That’s why Sunnyside offers coaching via SMS and email to offer you support, advice, and motivation when you need it the most. 

How does Sunnyside work?

The app features real-time monitoring and personalized feedback based on your drinking patterns. Coupled with a guided “Mindful Drinking Plan,” you get actionable tips to help improve various facets of your life – like sleep quality, energy levels, and overall wellness. 

If you’re looking for a middle ground in your relationship with alcohol, it might be time to check out Sunnyside. The first step toward a smarter, healthier approach to alcohol starts with them. 


Your next steps to a healthier, more mindful relationship with alcohol

From understanding the intricate ways alcohol affects our brain to exploring the lasting consequences on our overall health, we’ve covered a lot of ground. But most importantly, we’ve also laid the foundation for a healthier, more mindful relationship with alcohol thanks to the innovative approach offered by Sunnyside. 

In collaboration with Sunnyside, our brain-sensing headband and meditation subscription can be integral to your wellness journey. While Sunnyside tackles mindful drinking, Muse provides the insights and tools you need for better sleep, another key element in your brain health. Combining our EEG headset and meditation subscription with Sunnyside’s mindful coaching makes for a comprehensive wellness strategy. 

So are you ready to take control of your relationship with alcohol and sleep? Join the FREE 31-Day Soberish October Challenge here. Your future self will thank you. 

Your takeaway checklist:

  1. Understanding the short-term and long-term impact of alcohol on your brain and body
  2. Practical steps for finding middle ground in your drinking habits
  3. Leveraging modern tools like the Muse S Headband and the Sunnyside app to help make more informed decisions about alcohol

Tune into the latest Untangle episode on the benefits of mindful drinking with Ian Andersen, co-founder of Sunnyside:



[1] Sayette, M. A. (1999). Does Drinking Reduce Stress? Alcohol Research & Health, 23(4), 250-255.

[2] Fein, G., & Cardenas, V. A. (2015). Neuroplasticity in Human Alcoholism: Studies of Extended Abstinence with Potential Treatment Implications. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 37(1), 125-141.

[3] Colrain, I. M., Nicholas, C. L., & Baker, F. C. (2014). Alcohol and the Sleeping Brain. Handbook of Clinical Neurology, 125, 415.

[4] Pacheco, D., & Singh, Dr. A. (2023, August 9). Alcohol and sleep. Sleep Foundation.,and%20more%20of%20the%20former

[5] Chiara, G. D. (1997). Alcohol and Dopamine. Alcohol Health and Research World, 21(2), 108-114.

[6] Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. "Heavy, Chronic Drinking Can Cause Significant Hippocampal Tissue Loss." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 October 2006.

[7] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, April 14). Drinking too much alcohol can harm your health. learn the facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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