Does this story sound familiar? Maybe it’s you – maybe someone you know…

For the most part, you take it easy with the alcohol. A drink or two with dinner, possibly a nightcap after a long day, but nothing excessive (because you don’t want drinking to interfere with your busy work life or productivity, right?) That is, until the opportunity arises. You time it perfectly – usually on a weekend – no immediate work responsibilities the next day. You’ve been saving up for this all week- and when you let go, you go hard.

Work hard, play hard – right? After all, you deserve it.

Then the next day, you’ll drink a green juice, hit the gym, sweat it out and be back to normal. Maybe.

Maybe not.

New research shows this type of drinking (aka bingeing) is bad for your brain, and it might not be for the reasons you think.

Yes, there are the immediate consequences that we’re all aware of: the pounding head, the fogginess, the underlying nausea. Those are symptoms that can be treated fairly quickly, leading us to feel like we’re back to “normal” quicker than we actually are.

However, as research on binge drinking has begun to show, all is not so.

But first, what exactly constitutes binge drinking? I know I certainly never applied the term to myself – though in retrospect I definitely fit within the definition.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks, and when women consume 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours. (A drink would be a small glass of wine or beer, or a cocktail with 1 oz of alcohol.)

As you can see, it’s quite easy to ingest that amount of alcohol, or more, during a big night out. What’s more, is that if you are anything like me, it didn’t stop at one night.

There would be brunch the next day, then maybe a happy hour, drinks with dinner, and another night out, followed by another brunch on Sunday… In short, a lot of alcohol over a short span of time.

I used to think that by Monday I could be back to normal again, but research shows I was mistaken. Now, I’m not usually one for scare tactics – but the more I started researching this, the more I felt like I needed to share.

Dr. Jonathan Chick, of the alcohol problems service at the Royal Edinburgh hospital and the chief editor of Alcohol and Alcoholism, says his research shows that “humans who have a few heavy drinking sessions in a row may sometimes undergo subtle brain changes which make it harder to learn from mistakes and to learn new ways of tackling problems because their brain function has been subtly impaired.”

Another interesting study, conducted by two identical twin brothers Chris and Alexander van Tullekens who also happen to be doctors, was the focus of a recent BBC Horizon special.

Alexander drank 3 units of alcohol daily, whereas Chris consumed the weekly amount of alcohol in a span of 24 hours, four times (weekends) in a month. The aim was to see how the same quantity of alcohol affected the body, given the difference in the way it was consumed.

Chris reports feeling his experiment would be easier. He thought he would deal with a day or two of hangover, and then feel great the rest of the week. The results, however, showed otherwise, “My levels of cytokines and interleukins, those key markers of inflammation, were raised. I’d expected them to be sky high after the first binge – but six days later, just before I was about to start the second binge, they hadn’t gone down at all, and at the end of four weeks they’d soared.”

Well, there goes the idea that a week off in between a big binge is enough to clear the system. He continues, “I felt good but my body was still damaged from the binge. Inflammation is linked to a vast array of diseases from cancer and severe infection to heart disease and dementia. This was not a good result.”

How exactly does that happen? Well, when inflammation is triggered and refuses to turn on, the body starts thinking it is under attack, and floods your system with white blood cells. Your immune system becomes drained, and then the body has a hard time warding off other illnesses. This means that even a common cold virus or bacterial infection can cause a greater risk.

I used to wonder why I’d become rundown and why it always seemed like I was always fighting a cold … this definitely explains why. Yet as a young, resilient and generally quite healthy person, I used to feel quite invincible. So what if I’d get colds more often than others? It’s wasn’t going to kill me. But now, I realize the reality of my drinking habits and how they could be contributing to much more serious consequences such as cancer and brain damage is a much more, dare I say it, sobering thought.

In a NIAA publication on alcohol and Alzheimer disease, Dr. Suzanne Tyas writes that while there is still more research needed on whether alcohol use can be a predictor for Alzheimer’s, it is proven that some of the detrimental effects of heavy alcohol use on brain function are similar to those observed in Alzheimer’s disease. Heavy drinking accelerates shrinkage, or atrophy of the brain, which causes neurodegenerative changes … in other words, brain damage. Ugh.

Dr. Fulton T. Crews, professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill adds, “there are a growing list of studies that suggest that even short term binge drinking can have long term effects.”

But before you spiral into a doom and gloom reasoning like “Well, if I’ve already damaged my brain then what’s the point … I may as well continue boozin and at least have fun” – let me stop you right there. That kind of fatalism will get you nothing more than a foggier brain with less functional brain cells, and a body rife with inflammation.

See, regardless of your past, there is hope! The good news is that, unlike Alzheimer’s and terminal cancer, you can turn this around. Studies show that the atrophy of brain cells decreases after abstinence from alcohol, and what we know from many cancer survivors is that adopting an “anti-inflammatory lifestyle” can reduce or halt the progression of inflammation-induced ailments. Does it mean you have to give up alcohol forever? No. Does it mean making some lifestyle changes? Yes, of course. But trust me, your brain and body will thank you for it.

Tips for cutting back:

  1. Take a break: Try a period of abstinence. My friend Jina Schaefer, who leads regular 40 day alcohol free challenges on Facebook, recommends giving yourself a little over a month to press reset and really look at your relationship to alcohol.

  2. Stick to the recommended daily amount. As someone who is a bit “authority adverse,” (okay, a lot) this is a tough one for me. “What do “they” know? My tolerance is great!” Sound familiar? Well, just because I could hold my alcohol didn’t mean it wasn’t harming my body and brain. The government guidelines are there for a reason. The reason isn’t a Big Brotherish buzzkill, it’s because drinking more than the recommended amount has been shown to have serious health risks. So ladies, that means no more than 4 standard sized drinks in the span of 4 hours.

  3. Pace yourself (bye bye bingeing): Alternate one alcoholic drink with two non-alcoholic drinks. Experiment with different drinking behaviours. If you feel like you want to treat yourself to one or two drinks during the week so that you aren’t saving up for the big blowout on the weekend, try that. As Dr. Dr Michael Wilks says, “Saving up your weekly units so you can drink them all on a Friday night is not the way to interpret the government’s advice.”

  4. Be anti-inflammatory: This is a biggie, and involves more than just cutting back on alcohol. The “work hard play hard” lifestyle often puts stress on our system in a myriad of ways, and we now know that stress is inflammatory as well. Strive to achieve a bit more balance, get 30 minutes more sleep a night, enjoy restful, relaxing and rejuvenating activities like yoga, meditation, swimming, walking in nature, and eat a plant-based and nutrient dense diet. If you do have a big night out, reconsider reaching for a burger the next day and try a green juice, root veggies or salad instead (all anti-inflammatory). Most importantly – don’t beat yourself up!! If anything, pamper yourself more.

  5. Take 5 (or 10) Find ways to take mini-breaks, or as my friend Katie Corcoran calls them, “hustle breaks” (if you missed our conversation last week, click here). Break the binge behaviour by allowing yourself pleasure play dates throughout your days and weeks, so that you don’t feel the need to go “all out” on the weekends. Surround yourself with beauty, have fresh flowers at your day and remind yourself to smell them, keep floral aromatherapy scents on hand to get you out of your head and into the moment, take dance or spin classes … do anything that gives you the opportunity to get out of your head and into your body.

One final thought. For those of us women who push ourselves hard, too hard sometimes, alcohol becomes the permission slip… the hall pass that allows us to check out for awhile. For me and I’m sure this is the same for a lot of us,I drank to excess to escape from my overwhelmed brain, then I’d spend my only day off curled up in fetal position … this was the only way I knew how to give myself permission.

And now, my downtime is vital to my ability to recharge. My body and brain are better for it, and I can guarantee that yours will be too.

Have a friend who could use this info? Please pass it along!

I’d love to hear your biggest takeaways in the comments! How does bingeing show up in your life and how can you bring in more balance instead?