Now that marijuana is legal in several states, comparisons are being made between the effects of marijuana and alcohol, and how each impacts your overall health. Research released in December 2017 explores how both drinking and smoking pot affect your brain, and the results are pretty eye-opening.
For the study, which was published in the journal Addiction, scientists analyzed data for 853 adults and 439 teens who reported using alcohol or pot. When studying neuroimaging data, the researchers discovered that people who used alcohol had long-term changes to the structure of white matter and gray matter in their brains. The more alcohol they consumed, the bigger the changes. “Alcohol-use severity is associated with widespread lower gray matter volume and white matter integrity in adults,” the researchers concluded in the study. (The only exception: teens. The researchers did not find significant changes in white matter volume in teens who used alcohol.) Meanwhile, scientists found no significant structural changes in the brains of people who reported using marijuana in the last 30 days.
The effects of alcohol on the brain sound bad, and they are. The white matter of your brain carries nerve impulses between neurons and allows you to think fast, walk straight, and keep from falling, Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Gray matter plays a role in seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and self-control, he says. When these areas lose volume, it “basically can cause people to be slow,” Segil says.
But the study’s findings don’t mean that you should suddenly take up a marijuana habit for your health. While the study found that brain structure becomes abnormal from excessive alcohol use, scientists don’t have the technology to see how pot impacts brain chemistry. “Even though the structure looks abnormal with alcohol use, the expectation is that the chemistry is being altered equally with both [alcohol and marijuana],” Segil says. “Brain function is definitely not normal with both, and the expectation is that both are going to hurt you in the long run.”
Worth pointing out: The researchers looked at people who used marijuana in the last 30 days and it’s not surprising that wouldn’t change brain volume, Amit Sachdev, a neurologist and director of the Division of Neuromuscular Medicine at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Nearly every toxin that affects the brain requires some degree of chronic use,” he says.
The findings also don’t mean that you need to avoid alcohol altogether. Instead, it’s important to make sure your use is kept within moderate limits, which the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines as having up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. “Everything in moderation,” Segil says.
Still, neither drug is exactly good for your brain. Both can mess with your memory and function when you’re using them, and research has found that large amounts of alcohol can make it difficult for the brain to form memories, while heavy marijuana users can have difficulty with mental functioning for up to a month after they stop using the drug, according to one study.
“Alcohol abuse is not good for brain health — that is well known,” Sachdev says. “But marijuana abuse is likely also bad for brain health in the long run.”
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