Alcohol isn’t good for you.
Ideally, you should completely avoid it for optimal brain and mental health.
But that’s in a perfect world.
Alcohol is everywhere and social interactions often involve it. So you’re going to end up drinking it every now and then. And during big holidays or special occasions, you likely won’t stop at one drink.
And I don’t blame you.
There are times when I let loose and have a drink or two (or several). Life’s too short not to indulge once in a while.
Fortunately, it’s possible to have a few drinks on occasion without completely destroying your brain and mental health. In fact, you can enjoy the buzz safely and wake up the next day feeling great.
So I’m going to share with you my comprehensive anti-alcohol regimen so that you can manage and fight back against the damaging effects of alcohol.
I often go many months without having a sip of alcohol. But when I do imbibe, I follow the steps below.
These recommendations will:
- Protect your brain while consuming alcohol
- Decrease the chances that you'll wake up depressed, anxious and hungover
- Help you recover if you do wake up feeling sub-optimal
- Heal your brain after long-term alcohol abuse
The more steps that you take, the less likely you will wake up feeling physically and mentally sick.
And as you’ll see, these recommendations are very good for your brain and mental health in general. If you don’t drink, implementing some of these strategies into your everyday life will help you overcome anxiety and depression.
The Most Important Steps
1. Pick The Right Drinks
The type of alcohol you drink can make a huge difference in how you feel the next morning.
Certain drinks are worse for your brain and increase your chance of waking up hungover and depressed.
Based on my experience and research, here are some common forms of alcohol, from best to worst:
- Vodka – best option
- Dry cider
- Dry white wine
- Regular white wine
- Red wine
- Cider with lots of sugar
- Gluten-free beer
- Regular beer – worst option
Highly filtered and distilled liquor such as vodka, gin and rum are your best options. And it’s best to drink them straight. Carbonation increases the absorption of alcohol, which may increase the chance of you experiencing a hangover the next day (7).
Dry cider and dry white wine are also decent options, but not as optimal as filtered and distilled liquor.
I recommend you completely avoid or significantly limit sugary drinks and beer. Refined sugar and wheat in beer can activate the immune system and trigger inflammation, which can negatively affect your brain and make you feel mentally unstable and foggy (57, 58).
Some alcoholic drinks also contain congeners, substances produced during fermentation. They are often found in dark alcoholic drinks, such as whiskey and tequila, and can also contribute to hangovers, making you feel suboptimal the next day. So you should try to stay away from those too (4).
Lastly, mycotoxins are toxic metabolites produced by mold that are capable of causing disease in humans. Low amounts of mycotoxins are often found in wine and beer, and can make you feel sick if you’re sensitive to them. And some research shows that one type of mycotoxin, ochratoxin A, can cause brain damage (49, 50, 51, 52).
After living in a moldy environment for over one year, I became extremely sensitive to seemingly healthy foods and drinks, such as coffee, tea and nuts. Eating low-quality versions of these foods give me asthma and make me feel mentally tired. I couldn’t figure it out why at first, but I’ve now confirmed that it’s the mycotoxins that are commonly found in cheap versions of these foods.
Not everyone will be sensitive to them. But if you are, your hangover will be worse and your cognition will suffer the next day.
That’s why I don’t recommend red wine, as it often contains them. Red wine is also overrated. It does contain the beneficial antioxidant resveratrol but not very much. Red wine manufacturers love to make it seem like it has a lot, but that’s just a marketing gimmick. You would have to drink several bottles of red wine on a regular basis to consume enough resveratrol and get major health benefits. And by drinking that much alcohol, you’d be destroying your health anyway. So you’re better off just supplementing with resveratrol.
2. Drink Lots of Water
Alcohol dehydrates your body.
And the tissue around your brain is made up of water. So as you drink, and you lose water, the tissues around your brain start to shrink. This leads to pressure around your head that can contribute to headaches, fatigue and dizziness (5, 6).
That’s why you should hydrate heavily. Have one or two cups of water with each alcoholic drink, and lots of water before bed.
Your brain will thank you for it.
Your body breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde, a highly-reactive compound that is actually much more toxic to your brain than alcohol itself.
Your liver enzymes and antioxidants try to detoxify and eliminate it, but they often cannot keep up, leading to common hangover symptoms (19).
But hangover symptoms can be prevented or significantly reduced if you help your body get rid of the acetaldehyde.
This can be done by supporting your body's natural detoxification pathways.
One way to do this is by increasing glutathione, your body’s master antioxidant.
Glutathione plays a key role in alcohol detoxification by “mopping up” acetaldehyde. And it's been shown that regular alcohol exposure depletes glutathione (47).
That’s why I recommend supplementing with liposomal glutathione before and after you drink alcohol. Doing so will guarantee you have enough of the antioxidant to protect your brain and prevent hangover symptoms.
It’s important to note that most standard glutathione supplements get broken down by the your digestive tract and do not enter your bloodstream. So you’ll need to find a highly-absorbable form of glutathione.
4. N-Acetyl-Cysteine and Vitamin C
NAC is the precursor to glutathione. It's been shown that it effectively produces and replenishes glutathione levels in our tissues, helping us fend off the consequences of alcohol consumption (23, 24).
In rats, it prevents alcohol toxicity and death by binding directly to acetaldehyde and blocking its damaging effects in the body and brain (25, 26).
I’ve also previously discussed how NAC can help treat six different mental illnesses.
Along with NAC, Vitamin C plays a key role in the production of glutathione. Research shows that it also helps soak up acetaldehyde, and it is depleted by alcohol consumption (25, 36).
I take NAC every other day to manage my mental health anyway. But if you don't already, you can take this sustained-release NAC before your first drink, and then one right before bed. It works very well.
By taking NAC in a sustained-release encapsulation, you don’t need to take it with every drink.
And when you go bed with alcohol in your system, taking a sustained-release NAC will continue protecting your body and brain while you sleep.
You can get sustained-release NAC here.
Vitamin C can also be found in sustained-release form. I take 2-3 grams of this sustained-release Vitamin C before and after drinking.
It’s important to note that taking glutathione, NAC and Vitamin C before or during alcohol consumption does not prevent you from getting drunk. It simply blocks alcohol toxicity and the irritable side effects that you may experience the next day. So technically, you can “have your cake and eat it too” when you follow these steps properly.
Lastly, NAC is excitotoxic. If you are deficient in Vitamin B6 or magnesium, you may experience headaches from taking too much NAC along with alcohol. Obviously we’re trying to avoid headaches, so if this happens to you, just stick with glutathione and Vitamin C.
5. Bioavailable Vitamin B1
Thiamine (vitamin B1) is an essential water-soluble vitamin.
Alcohol depletes Vitamin B1, and deficiency is common in regular drinkers. A lack of Vitamin B1 has been shown to damage brain cells and cause a variety of mental symptoms including lethargy, fatigue, apathy, impaired awareness, loss of equilibrium, disorientation, memory loss and anorexia, (37, 38, 39).
NAC’s antioxidant effects are even more powerful when combined with Vitamin B1. In one study, NAC, Vitamin C and Vitamin B1 completely blocked a deadly dose of acetaldehyde in animals. None of the animals treated with these nutrients died (25, 34).
Benfotiamine is the fat-soluble form of vitamin B1, and its absorption is approximately five times higher than regular thiamine (48).
Sulbutiamine is a synthetic version of Vitamin B1, consisting of two thiamine molecules bound together. This allows vitamin B1 to easily cross the blood-brain barrier and support the brain. I recommend you take 200 mg of sulbutiamine before you go to bed, and then another 200 mg when you wake up in the morning. You can get high-quality sulbutiamine here.
I remember the first time I took sulbutiamine after years of regular drinking. It felt like a light was turned on in my brain. Everything was brighter and I had a lot more mental energy. It was as if my brain hadn’t fully recovered from chronic alcohol consumption. I suspect regular vitamin B1 wasn’t reaching my brain.
6. R-Lipoic Acid and Acetyl-L-Carnitine
R-Lipoic Acid (RLA) is the most stable and bioavailable form of lipoic acid, an antioxidant produced by your body that could possibly be even more protective than Vitamin C. It is fat soluble and can easily cross the blood-brain barrier to protect your brain (53, 54, 55).
RLA enhances the antioxidant power of glutathione, NAC and vitamin C and helps them clear acetaldehyde from your body (56).
You can get RLA here.
Combining RLA with Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR), is even more powerful.
ALCAR is a neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing amino acid.
RLA and ALCAR are synergistic, meaning that when you take them together, they are more effective at protecting your brain.
They've been shown to prevent brain inflammation and neurotransmitter impairment caused by alcohol. They can also reverse brain damage and restore healthy brain function after drinking alcohol (55, 59, 60).
Alcohol depletes a number of minerals, particularly zinc, potassium and magnesium.
That’s why I recommend taking a high-quality multi-mineral supplement after your last drink, before going to bed, and then again the next morning.
Magnesium is especially helpful, as it’s been shown to prevent and relieve headaches and improve sleep. Epson salt baths can provide your body with lots of magnesium (8).
It’s also been shown that alcoholics are often deficient in zinc (and have too much copper) (28).
Zinc deficiency may explain why alcoholics drink in the first place. As I’ve discussed before, zinc deficiency can contribute to social anxiety and generalized anxiety. And chronic drinkers often drink to manage their anxiety and stress.
That’s why I would recommend a zinc supplement if you struggle with anxiety, stress or a drinking problem.
As a former anxious drinker, I find great relief in taking zinc.
I created and take the Optimal Zinc supplement.
Theanine is a relaxing amino acid that has a number of health benefits (9, 40).
It’s been shown to protect your brain from alcohol, as it blocks free radicals, counteracts the loss of glutathione, improves sleep, and accelerates the breakdown acetaldehyde – all of which contribute to the development of a hangover (12).
It can also make you feel less drunk.
When researchers give theanine to mice, it significantly reduces blood levels of alcohol (12). So when you want to drink socially, but would rather not feel intoxicated, you should take theanine before consuming alcohol.
Personally, I don’t want to block the buzz of alcohol. That’s why I take 200 mg of theanine just before going to bed, and then another 200 mg again in the morning when I wake up. Doing this will improve your sleep, help you sober up, and make you calmer and more stable the next morning.
Theanine can also be found in green tea, but you would have to drink a lot to get the same amount that you would in supplement form.
Theanine can be found in this anti-anxiety supplement, along with a number of other natural compounds that can help with hangovers (You can use the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount).
If you don’t want to experiment and take each supplement individually, you can also try this Anti-Alcohol Antioxidants Complex by Life Extension or this Hangover Formula by Source Naturals. They contain some of the nutrients I recommend above. I haven’t tried either of these formulas, but I have tried supplements by both of these reputable companies and they have always been high-quality. However, I do think it's better to take each supplement individually. It works better that way.
Based on my research and self-experimentation, my previous recommendations are the most impactful steps you can take.
However, here are some extra tips and recovery solutions for you to consider.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that mixes well with alcohol.
It has anti-anxiety effects that are synergistic with alcohol, so you will need less of each to experience the relaxing effects of each (61).
In my experience, ashwagandha is helpful when you want to be in a relaxed and socialble mood, but would rather limit your alcohol intake. I have a reduced urge to continue drinking alcohol when I take ashwagandha.
It’s also been shown to help relieve anxiety and depression during alcohol withdrawal. In one study, its anti-anxiety effects were comparable to diazepam, an anti-anxiety medication (62).
So when you experience anxiety and depression after drinking alcohol, I’d recommend taking ashwagandha the next morning. It definitely helps me.
You can get high-quality ashwagandha here. Take a low dose before drinking alcohol or a larger dose the morning after drinking.
If you struggle from depression, you probably notice that alcohol makes you feel more depressed the day after.
I used to be convinced that I would need to avoid alcohol forever because every time I drank it, I would be very depressed for several days afterwards.
This is likely because alcohol increases the amino acid homocysteine, and high levels of homocysteine have been associated with depression (2, 3).
That’s why I take S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e) after a night of drinking, as it helps lower homocysteine. Regular alcohol consumption has also been shown to lead to SAM-e deficiency (27).
SAM-e also helps restore glutathione after you drink alcohol (29, 30).
Even if you don’t drink, but struggle with depression, supplementing with SAM-E may really help you. I took it for a few months after coming off psychiatric medication, but no longer need to take it regularly. You can get it here.
Taurine is another amino acid that reduces the bad effects of alcohol on your brain.
It’s been shown to prevent brain cell death, reduce lack of coordination, and decrease the urinary loss of certain minerals during alcohol use (31, 32, 33).
Taurine is included in the Optimal Zinc supplement.
I recommend taking taurine before and after consuming alcohol.
As I mentioned above, Vitamin B1 (thiamine) is the most important B vitamin to take when consuming alcohol.
But research shows that alcohol significantly depletes all the B vitamins, particularly vitamin B3, B6 and folate (2, 27).
Vitamin B3 (niacin) is very beneficial for the brain of regular drinkers. Niacin deficiency often leads to a desire to drink alcohol, and drinking alcohol further depletes niacin in the body and brain. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), took niacin to remain sober and manage his cravings for alcohol.
Alcohol has also been shown to deplete the body of folate and vitamin B6, which are critical nutrients involved in the production of GABA and serotonin (20, 64).
I take this B complex before and after drinking alcohol.
As I just mentioned, alcohol depletes vitamin B6.
Similar to subutiamine, pyritinol is a special form of Vitamin B6 in which two Vitamin B6 molecules attached to each other. This allows Vitamin B6 to easily cross the blood-brain barrier and support the brain.
Taking it before, during and after alcohol consumption has been shown to reduce hangover symptoms by more than 50% (46).
I take 300 mg before and 300 mg after drinking. You can get it here.
I’ve talked about the many mental health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids before, and it appears they can protect your brain from alcohol exposure too.
When people are exposed to both alcohol and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, they experience less brain inflammation and brain cell death than people who simply drink alcohol alone. It appears that DHA mitigates oxidative damage in the brain that results from binge drinking (11).
I take this krill oil everyday.
I’ve also discussed curcumin lots before, as it has helped me overcome chronic depression and anxiety. It’s one of the best supplements you can take for your brain and mental health.
And here’s another reason you might want to consider taking it – it can increase glutathione and prevent brain damage caused by alcohol (35).
It’s also been shown to prevent brain inflammation, and reverse the negative biochemical and behavioural changes that result from previous alcohol consumption (1).
Silymarin is the active compound found in milk thistle, a herb commonly used to improve liver health and protect the liver from alcohol and other drugs.
Milk thistle also has powerful antioxidant properties that have been shown to help prevent the conversion of alcohol to acetaldehyde (18, 45).
I take it before a night out. You can get it through Amazon.
Garlic contains the antioxidant s-allyl-cysteine, which neutralizes acetaldehyde. It’s also been shown to reduce oxidative stress and protect the nervous system (41, 42).
Maybe this is why I always crave garlic shawarma at the end of a night out :)
I haven’t tried supplementing with garlic extract for preventing hangovers, but I did take this garlic extract after moving out of my moldy house in 2011 and it made me feel better.
One of the best ways you can the oxidative stress that results from alcohol consumption is to regularly consume enough antioxidants, especially leading up to a night out (21).
Some other protective antioxidants include CoQ10, quercetin, grape seed extract, Vitamin E, selenium and resveratrol.
Resveratrol is a very powerful antioxidant that can protect against alcohol’s toxic effects (13, 14, 15).
Grape seed extract has also been shown to prevent the oxidative damage caused by alcohol (16, 17).
Selenium levels tend to be lower in people who drink alcohol on a regular basis (22).
And Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin with antioxidant properties that can prevent brain damage caused by alcohol. It’s often depleted in chronic drinkers (43, 44).
And similar to statin drugs, alcohol has also been shown to deplete CoQ10 (63).
I cycle through these antioxidants on a regular basis, and I’ll take whatever I have on hand before and after drinking.
Activated charcoal is a potent natural treatment that can trap toxins and chemicals, allowing them to be flushed out of your body.
If you choose to drink wine or beer, you should take activated charcoal with each drink and once you’re done drinking.
Activated charcoal can help bind and remove gluten and mycotoxins from your body, although it won’t catch them all. You’re definitely better off just avoiding drinks that contain them.
The activated charcoal is also very good at protecting you from the congeners found in tequila and whiskey.
Clearly, there’s lots that can be done to protect your brain from alcohol.
Even though your body and brain can be overwhelmed by alcohol, you can support yourself and reduce the damage by drinking the right alcohol, hydrating heavily, and supplementing with various antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Obviously it would be much easier to just avoid alcohol altogether. And that would definitely be optimal for your brain and mental health.
But if you do decide to drink, I’ve shared bunch of ideas here, and hopefully you find a good mix of preventative solutions that work for you. Self-experimentation is key.
But in my experience, the below interventions are the essentials. They work very well for me, mitigating damage and allowing me to wake up in the morning feeling great:
- Stick with straight vodka
- Drink lots of water
- Liposomal glutathione before and after
- NAC before and after
- Vitamin C before and after
- R-Lipoic Acid before, during and after
- Benfotiamine or B Complex before, during and after
- Minerals – particularly zinc, magnesium – before bed
- Theanine before bed
- Sulbutiamine the next morning
And if you don’t want to experiment and take each supplement individually like I do, you can also try this Anti-Alcohol Antioxidants Complex by Life Extension or this Hangover Formula by Source Naturals. I personally haven’t tried them. But I have tried supplements by both of these reputable companies and they have always been high-quality.
Lastly, it’s important to consider your current level of health. If you’re an alcoholic, on medication, or struggle with severe mental health issues, you should focus on dealing and overcoming those issues first. Otherwise, alcohol will make everything worse. After you heal your body and brain, you should be able to tolerate it just fine.
Alcohol used to be a complete no-no for me, but I can now handle it just fine because I'm healthy. Yet, funny enough, now that I experience optimal brain and mental health, I actually don’t even feel the need to drink alcohol like I used to.
Overall, I hope you found this useful. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Do you drink? What do you do to protect yourself or avoid a hangover? Have I missed anything?
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Reviewed by Dr. Richard Nahas, MD CCFP DCAPM ABIM