Alcohol: How To Remember Not To Forget

This article is all about alcohol, why it causes memory loss and how to prevent this happening when you do drink it.

Alcohols are a family of compounds which contain a hydroxyl group (-OH) [1]. If we are talking about the alcohol which is commonly drunk by people as a beverage, we are talking about ethanol: CH3-CH2-OH.  The hydroxyl group on the end of the carbon chain makes it an alcohol.  When trying to conceive of chemistry it helps to think of lego – all matter is accountable so we can always count and track all the atoms in chemical reactions.

Alcohol examples
Technically there are many types of alcohol


Ethanol is made out of glucose.  In biology, glucose is metabolised to ethanol before becoming acetic acid (vinegar).  This process is known as Glycolysis [2].  Our body does this day in, day out – at any given point there is 4 grams of ethanol in our body produced endogenously.  Endogenous means within the body.  Exogenous refers to coming from outside the body.  We can understand a lot about the chemistry by breaking down the words – Endo, Exo.


Ethanol is what we refer to commonly as alcohol


We can understand about the metabolism of alcohol by thinking of yeast which converts glucose to alcohol, and then the alcohol turns to vinegar.  Think about what happens when you leave some wine open, it breaks down into vinegar.


Glucose metabolism
Glucose is broken down into smaller carbon fragments


Drinking large amounts of alcohol causes memory loss because it produces hypoglycaemia.  Hypoglycaemis is low blood sugar; hypo is the opposite of hyper.  The body and its organs need glucose to fuel their activity.  Glucose is one of the primary fuels used to derive energy and carbon building blocks to build more complex molecules.


Without enough glucose in the bloodstream the body shuts down less essential functions so that more important functions are supported.  When there is low blood sugar the memory and motor coordination are negatively affected because there is not enough fuel to power them.


This is most observable in diabetics during a hyperglycaemic attack.  You will notice their memory goes and coordination is impaired.  This is what happens when we drink, and part of the fun effect of drinking.  It is dangerous to regulate blood sugar this way and must not be done.  In fact, it is dangerous to drink without eating something in general.  When people die of ‘alcohol poisoning’ they in fact die of hypoglycaemia – low blood sugar, which causes metabolic failure [3].


Why does this happen ?  Ethanol inhibits gluconeogenesis [4].  Gluconeogenesis is a word which describes the creation of alcohol inside the body (GLUCO-NEO-GENESIS).  Without this source of glucose for fuel, blood sugar falls and it must be obtained from the diet.  Part of the reason why this happens is that ethanol, being a carbohydrate intermediate, uses up the resources which are also required to create new sugars in the body – namely Thiamine pyrophosphate [5].


thiamine pyrophosphate
Thiamine Pyrophosphate


So the key to prevent memory loss and improve coordination it is important to feed yourself 50 to 100 grams of glucose to raise blood sugar and fuel the brain.  When you have been drinking enough for your blood glucose levels to dip, you must replace the sugar.  Chocolate bars will act quickly, but more complex carbohydrates (a broader term for sugars) are longer acting.  The more you drink, the more you will require to eat; it is a relative question. If your brain is supplied with the fuel it needs to function then functions like memory will not stop functioning – in short you will not forget your night, also your motor coordination will be better.  This can be simply tested [6].


Wernicke’s area of the brain is damaged by alchol abuse


Two classic ailments are associated with the effects of alcoholism and chronic alcohol use.  Wernicke’s encephalopathy (which affects the speech) and Korsakoff’s syndrome (which affects the memory) [7].  These are extreme examples of what the effects of alcohol are, but each time we drink we experience these on a small scale.  These are very well studied.


Alcohol abuse damages the tissues of the brain


Thiamine is required to metabolise both glucose and alcohol.  Thiamine is also required for gluconeogenesis.  Classically, orthodox medicine uses thiamine (vitamin B1) to treat alcoholism and some of it’s symptoms [8].  Thiamine becomes active in the blood and tissues when two molecules of phosphate are added to it creating thiamine pyrophosphate.  Magnesium carries the phosphorus and attaches it in to the thiamine molecule [9].  Again, it helps to think of lego…


thiamin pyrophosphate formation
The formation of Thiamine Pyrophosphate


A final reason for the effect of alcoholic beverages on blood sugar, is that they are often preserved with sulfites (although this is not always the case).  Sulfites destroy the thiamine enzyme by cleaving the molecule into two biologically inactive constituents [10], thus knocking out the bodys ability to create glucose as well as reducing the ability to metabolise the alcohol, all culminating in hypoglycemia.


sulfites cleave thiamine
sulfites cleave thiamine



[1] Alcohols -

[2] Glycolysis –

[3] Hyoglycaemia and Alcohol –

[4]Alcohol inhibits Gluconeogenesis –

[5]Alcohol increases thiamine requirement –

[6]Falsifiability –

[7] Wernicke’s Encephalopathy: Role of Thiamine, Practical Gastroenterology, June 2009, Nutrition Issues In Gastroenterology, Series #75, Carol Rees Parrish, R.D., M.S., Series Editor –

[8]Thiamine classically used to treat alcoholism – British National Formulary;

[9]Thiamine activated by Magnesium –

[10] Thiamine deficiency in dogs due to the feeding of sulphite preserved meat, M Singh, Veterinary Specialist Centre, PO Box 307, North Ryde, NSW, 2113, Australian College of Veterinary Scientists – Science Week 2005 – Small Animal Medicine Chapter meeting

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