Alcohol or Marijuana: Which is Worse for Your Brain?

Alcohol and Marijuana

One of the most common things people want to know is whether alcohol or marijuana is worse for your brain and overall health. The scientific evidence and the brain imaging work at Amen Clinics show that neither one is good for you. Alcohol is not a health food, and marijuana is not an innocuous substance. But is one of them more damaging than the other?

At first glance, it might seem that alcohol does the most damage to our brain health and general well-being because it is more widely used. Over 85% of American adults say they’ve consumed alcohol at some point in their lives, and nearly 70% say they’ve had a drink in the past year, as reported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Compare that to just 18% of Americans who said they used marijuana in 2019, according to the CDC. Although not as widespread, the harmful effects of marijuana on the brain may be greater. Let’s take a closer look at some of the worst consequences of drinking and marijuana.

One of the most common things people want to know is whether alcohol or marijuana is worse for your brain and overall health. Click To Tweet

CONSEQUENCES OF DRINKING ALCOHOL

Death: Approximately 95,000 people lose their lives due to alcohol-related causes each year. This puts alcohol at #3 on the list of leading preventable causes of death in the U.S., just after tobacco and poor diet/physical inactivity.

Chronic health conditions: Some of the leading causes of alcohol-related deaths are liver disease, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and high blood pressure.

Traffic fatalities: Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) show that in the U.S., approximately 30% of all traffic accident deaths involve drunk driving. An estimated 32 Americans lose their lives each day in crashes where someone is driving drunk.

Alcohol use disorder: For some people, drinking leads to addiction, as 14.5 million people ages 12 and up have an alcohol use disorder, according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSUDH). Addiction ruins lives and destroys families.

Binge drinking: Over 25% of American adults engaged in binge drinking in the past month. Binge drinking is defined as consuming 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more drinks for women within a span of about 2 hours. Binge drinking leads to a litany of serious consequences, such as injuries, violence, risky sexual behavior, unwanted pregnancy, and more.

Reduced brain volume: Drinking alcohol, even just 1-7 drinks per week, is associated with brain shrinkage, according to a study in JAMA Neurology. Another study in BMJ shows that having just 1-2 glasses of wine per day is associated with atrophy in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in mood, memory, and learning.

Heightened risk of dementia: Research shows that people who are moderate to heavy drinkers are at a 57% increased risk of developing dementia. Brain SPECT imaging scans of heavy drinkers at Amen Clinics show low blood flow in the brain, which is the #1 brain imaging predictor that a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Poor decision-making: Even in people who are light drinkers, consuming alcohol impacts brain function and can lead to bad decisions. When people drink, it lowers blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control, judgment, and forethought. It makes people more likely to say or do things that get you in trouble—relationship trouble, financial trouble, or legal trouble.

Depression and mental health issues: Some people use alcohol as a way to self-medicate feelings of depression or anxiety. Although drinking may temporarily provide relief from these feelings, it ultimately exacerbates symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

CONSEQUENCES OF MARIJUANA USE

Traffic fatalities: Research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that traffic fatalities increased by 4% and accidents with injuries jumped by close to 6% in states that had legalized marijuana.

Increased risk of depression and suicidality: Most people associate marijuana with getting high and happy, but a 2019 review in JAMA Psychiatry concluded that cannabis use as an adolescent is associated with a greater risk of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts.

Fuels anxiety: In some people, using marijuana with higher levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, increases anxiousness, according to a study in Neurology.

Makes you psychotic: Research in The Lancet Psychiatry shows that the use of high-potency cannabis may be responsible for 10% of new cases of psychosis.

Impairs memory: Using marijuana temporarily disrupts memory formation and puts you at risk for cognitive dysfunction later in life, according to research in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers have found that THC attaches to receptors in the memory centers of the brain, including the hippocampus.

Decreases brain health: In an Amen Clinics brain imaging study on the drivers of brain aging published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, cannabis abuse was second only to schizophrenia in accelerating brain aging. Schizophrenia was associated with 4 years of premature aging while cannabis abuse represented 2.8 years of accelerated aging. Alcohol abuse represented 0.6 years of accelerated aging and came in fifth on the list after bipolar disorder (1.6 years of accelerated aging) and ADD/ADHD (1.4 years of accelerated aging).

THE ALCOHOL VS. MARIJUANA CONCLUSION

So which substance is worse? Alcohol has more far-reaching consequences because it is consumed by so many more people, but marijuana is worse when it comes to its direct impact on brain aging. The bottom line in terms of brain health and overall well-being is to eliminate or reduce the use of both these substances.

Addictions, alcohol use disorders, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

17 Comments »

  1. Totally agree. At the end of the day, they are both still toxic to the body. I think the biggest thing here is we also have more research on alcohol right now.

    Comment by Sam — January 14, 2023 @ 1:37 PM

  2. I agree but at the end of the day they both are bad for you, weed can be used in a good way though

    Comment by john dent — February 9, 2023 @ 10:10 AM

  3. "Alcohol has more far-reaching consequences because it is consumed by so many more people, but marijuana is worse when it comes to its direct impact on brain aging."
    What this should say is "alcohol is worse for you in every aspect except for brain aging"

    Comment by Josh — February 12, 2023 @ 1:07 AM

  4. I have chronic pain due to back injuries. I was wondering if that has an impact on the brain, also the constant use of medicine for that purpose. I have been researching the use of cbd oil for pain . Have you done any research on the effects of CBS on the brain? Thank you.

    Comment by Marilynn Wright — March 29, 2023 @ 4:50 AM

  5. Your statistics are not 100% accurate. There are many many good benefits to cannabis. And many many people rely on it for that. Cannabis does not cause depression, or suicidal thoughts. Most people consuming cannabis, use it to help with depression. Cannabis is CBD, which CBD has many many many benefits with brain growth, relieving pressure pain, etc.

    Comment by Ysidro rivera — April 12, 2023 @ 8:35 AM

  6. I wonder how often those attracted to the study and cannabis already had issues leading to use or how much long term studies showed an actual individual decline vs overall comparison to non users. We still live in a world that cannabis is less accepting and could change the pool of users, making for an innacurate study. I am not going to trust these broad studies just yet.

    Comment by Shane — April 14, 2023 @ 8:57 AM

  7. I read where someone else asked about using CBD/THC salves for chronic pain, but saw no response to their question. I have tried some salves before and seem to have had relief from pain with no other side affects. I'm in a state where we can grow cannabis for personal use and have thought about preparing my own salves. Have you studied the effects of external use of these cannabenoids and brain, as I am in early stages of ALZ

    Comment by Roberta Eveland-Williams — April 14, 2023 @ 1:08 PM

  8. How about moderation ? On both.

    Comment by Teshome Fayissa — April 14, 2023 @ 3:48 PM

  9. i have come to the conclusion in my 73yrs during which time i have taken both that most times i am self medicating from a human life that is excruciatingly difficult. i believe most people who take mind altering substances are self medicating. you are a lucky person who finds life so full that your mind is kept busy to fulfil yourself. another human takes just a brief moment of passion with another – why bother? i wouldn't want to bring another human into the world that is run by humans – don't like 'em much! other creatures are much easier to cope with

    Comment by penny waters — April 15, 2023 @ 3:50 AM

  10. Marilynn's comment raised a question for me. I sometimes experience sciatia, interferring with my sleep. The experience comes and goes, so there are breaks between useage. I use an organic CBD salve when needed. There is almost immediate relief. I know very little about CBD products. This one was recommended to me. Are CBD products also potentially harmful ?

    Comment by Laurena Lyons — April 15, 2023 @ 11:27 AM

  11. When I started to smoke at 18y old I notice a lot of changes in my perception of the world, and a lot of good feelings. But it turns into a bad addiction, lost of memory and mental illness. The better option is to reduce the use of everything that makes you bad.

    Comment by Kaue — May 15, 2023 @ 11:45 PM

  12. The hangover tells you how bad alcohol is for you. Dispensaries don't offer enough low dose cannabis because they are run by potheads (workers not owners) who themselves smoke every day, but they have some and some 50/50 THC CBD. Why don't we educate Middle School kids about drugs, in depth. Would be a fascinating class since some friend is selling drugs anyway. Six kids died when I was in High School. Car split in half against the tree. Alcohol. Cannabis is bad for Non Adults for sure.

    Comment by Neil — May 31, 2023 @ 2:25 PM

  13. I've been a heavy cannabis user for most of my life but have also was a pretty heavy drinker in my early years. In a previous comment about the mental health problems as well as physical will arise from excessive amounts of anything and kinda scary to not know what is in store for this pothead!!???

    Comment by Kim Scott — June 28, 2023 @ 2:44 AM

  14. Medication to control my periods caused vomiting. I used marijuana and the nausea went away.

    Comment by nancy thieret — June 30, 2023 @ 2:02 AM

  15. Great post! If you have concerns about the impact of these substances on your brain or overall health, it's essential to seek advice from healthcare professionals and make informed decisions about their use.

    Comment by Jason Harvey — August 4, 2023 @ 11:41 AM

  16. I have used a lot of Delta 9, and I have consumed a lot of alcohol. I know that drinking a lot of alcohol is much worse than vaping as much Delta 9 as possible. Too much alcohol can be deadly

    Comment by John Derek Whitten — August 20, 2023 @ 6:09 AM

  17. Could you please tell us the reference of this alcohol and marijuana comparison study?

    Comment by Leonardo Sodre — October 23, 2023 @ 1:01 AM

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