The Brain Dangers of Being “California Sober”

California Sober

Cali sober, or California sober, is a “newish” term that refers to the benefits of semi-sobriety, or leading a more sober lifestyle than you had before. Followers say they have started drinking less, or swapping out their glass of wine in favor of marijuana or psychedelics like mushrooms.

But is a Cali sober lifestyle safe, or does it still harm your brain, mood, and cognitive function?


Before exploring the answer, it’s worth briefly understanding why people choose semi-sobriety in the first place. The singer Demi Lovato (who uses them/their pronouns and has been remarkably generous in sharing details of their struggles with drug abuse and mental health) wrote a song called “California Sober” last year.

Is a Cali sober lifestyle safe, or does it still harm your brain, mood, and cognitive function? Demi Lovato has changed their tune on the subject. Click To Tweet

“I’m California sober,” crooned Lovato, who came close to dying from a drug overdose in 2018. “It doesn’t have to mean the growing part is over.”

Used to live in fear of always slipping

But living for perfection isn’t living, 

I ran a little slower, now I’m tripping, 

A beautiful and magical beginning.

By consuming fewer, or supposedly less-harmful intoxicants, Cali sober adherents claim they are cleaning up their acts, at least a bit, and are the better for it.

While it’s both logical, and scientifically supported, that reducing consumption of mind-altering substances corresponds to a reduction in physical harm, it does not eliminate it. Far from it, in fact. Mounting research shows that strikingly low levels of alcohol, and other substances, can have far more negative consequences for a person’s brain health—both right away and over the long-term—than is commonly believed.


One new study, published in Science Daily in August, found that even one drink a day can reduce a person’s brain size. That solo drink can permanently impact the brain’s neurons, the way they interact and the way their mitochondria operate, the study found.

“These results suggest that even a single consumption event can lay the foundation for alcohol addiction,” according to the authors of the study.

The authors used a large data set, scrutinizing brain MRIs from more than 36,000 middle-aged to older adults in the United Kingdom. The scans showed that the white and gray matter in the study participants’ brains shrunk with even light-to-moderate alcohol use. In another finding that supports the central Cali sober idea, the study did reveal that the heaviest alcohol users benefited greatly from cutting back from three glasses to two glasses a night.

But while this is true, it does not address the damage done by such seemingly moderate alcohol consumption.

The news isn’t much better when it comes to embracing marijuana or psychedelics as “healthier” substitutes for drinking.


Even using marijuana temporarily can impair the creation of memories and expose people to the risk of cognitive dysfunction as they age, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine. The researchers followed more than 5,000 people for more than 25 years beginning in 1986 through 2011. For every additional five years of marijuana use, participants remembered one fewer word from a list of 15 words.

Adolescents who use cannabis run a higher risk of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts, according to a 2019 review in JAMA Psychiatry. Equally worrisome, as many as 10% of new cases of psychosis—the temporary inability to distinguish what is real from what isn’t—may be associated with taking high-potency cannabis, according to research in The Lancet Psychiatry.

When it comes to the greatest contributing risk factors in speeding up how quickly a brain ages, the use of cannabis came in second, after schizophrenia, according to an Amen Clinics brain imaging study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. The study involved a review of 62,454 brain SPECT scans, in a collaboration between Amen Clinics, Google, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of California in both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The study found that while alcohol abuse represented 0.6 years of accelerated aging, cannabis abuse was even worse, representing 2.8 years of accelerated aging. At number one on the list, schizophrenia represented 4 years.

“The cannabis abuse finding was especially important, as our culture is starting to see marijuana as an innocuous substance,” Dr. Daniel Amen said of the investigation. “This study should give us pause about it.


When it comes to psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical in magic mushrooms, more research needs to be done, but early findings suggest people should approach them with caution.

A 2020 brain imaging study in the journal NeuroImage found that psilocybin drug lowers activity in a part of the brain called the claustrum by studying brain scans of people before and after they took the drug.

Although people who take mushrooms famously report effects that range from seeing colors more vividly, to thinking unusual thoughts and feelings of euphoria, it’s not the case for everybody. Some people report nausea, numbness, anxiety, paranoia, panic attacks, fear, and feeling depressed.

And while MDMA, also known by the street drug names Ecstasy or Molly, releases serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine—all neurotransmitters associated with pleasure and well-being—there can be downsides. Levels of serotonin, for example, can be depleted following the use of MDMA, prompting adverse psychological impacts. Regions of the brain associated with impulse control and attention, working memory, and visual information processing can be impacted by long-term MDMA use.


Let’s return to the allure of that single glass of wine.

At Amen Clinics, the evidence from brain imaging studies demonstrates that even one glass of beer or wine per day can be directly toxic to brain function. The SPECT scans of people who drink excessively—more than three drinks a week—appear toxic. More generally, alcohol can harm the brain and body in numerous ways. It is associated with:

  • Sleep disruption
  • Peripheral neuropathies (pain and tingling in hands, legs, and feet). This refers to damage to neurons, especially those in the cerebellum, which is involved in physical and thought coordination, and mood.
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Malabsorption of vitamin B1, which predisposes people to serious cognitive problems.
  • Decreased firing in the prefrontal cortex, the seat of our personalities, and the part of the brain that oversees cognitive decision-making.
  • Increased sugar abuse
  • Over-stimulated appetite, by keeping a person seated at the table and continuing to eat past the point of feeling full.
  • Increased insulin production, which can lower blood sugar levels, impairing decision-making.
  • Increased risk of cancer and physical injuries. A known carcinogen, alcohol is associated with 5.8% of all cancer deaths.
  • Traffic fatalities. Just under a third of all traffic-related deaths involve alcohol, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA).

It should come as no surprise that the state of California itself—while associated in name with the Cali sober movement—is under no illusions about the risks of semi-sobriety. Electronic signs on California freeways, as elsewhere in the country, continue to flash an unequivocal message: “Buzzed driving is drunk driving.”

To put it simply, no matter all the ways our culture relentlessly romanticizes it, alcohol is not a health food. The only truly healthy relationship with it is entire abstinence, aka a fully sober life, not a semi-sober one.

Given the evidence about the dangers posed by even moderate alcohol consumption, perhaps the fad should be renamed—far more realistically—Cali buzzed. Today, that’s an idea that even Demi Lovato might agree with. Less than a year after their “California Sober” song came out, the singer changed their tune.

“I no longer support my California sober ways,” Lovato said on Instagram in December 2021, sparking widespread headlines regarding the about-face. “Sober sober is the only way to be.”

Substance abuse 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.



  1. For me, Cali Sober simply does not work. I prefer to go the “all in” route. The only concern is to ensure I do not have my laptop around when I do these adventures.

    Comment by Hunter Biden — January 2, 2023 @ 4:37 AM

  2. This is very helpful. I have had a concussion 2 years ago and then one about 2 months ago.. This helped me understand that no alcohol is best. Thank you

    Comment by dorothy wilson — January 2, 2023 @ 8:30 AM

  3. Interesting, but not really very helpful. What percentage of persons from say age 18-60 will be willing to give up all alcohol consumption for the rest of their lives, because they may not have as good a memory when they are 75 or 80. You also ignore all the other pollutants of all sorts that are pretty much impossible to avoid. Nor do you mention the positive effects of proper diet and supplements, although I do know you sell them and I have used many of them myself. Also, no mention of meditation, especially since this can greatly impact our mental state, which in turn has a tremendous positive effect on all our bodily functions. In summary, all these studies taken out of context, ie. the reality of life as it is, are not very useful, except perhaps for a very small number of folks. That may be good I guess, but the harm brought about by instilling guilt and worry in many others, which we know causes very negative reactions in our bodies, may be worse than any positive affects. And for sure most people will be unable to make such extreme changes, no matter how much they believe your research. Sincerely, in good faith, John Thomas

    Comment by John M Thomas — January 4, 2023 @ 12:01 AM

  4. I appreciate the knowledge, I was drinking 2 or3 bottles of hard cider to help me sleep.
    I assumed this was an innocuous practice . Our second President, John Adams wrote that he enjoyed the health benefits of a tankard Of hard cider every morning, so with that kind of endorsement , I drank freely . now that I know scientifically that alcohol use even at low levels can harm the brain, there will be no more of John Adams favorite beverage.

    Comment by Harley — January 8, 2023 @ 11:09 AM

  5. Yes I want to upgrade my brain and have good memory enhancement and concentration

    Comment by Gavin Nwanji — January 16, 2023 @ 1:52 PM

  6. excellent advice!

    Comment by Doug Morris — November 14, 2023 @ 2:40 PM

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