You may have been the Mike's-Hard-Lemonade-in-high-school type. Or the Bud-Light-from-a-keg-in-college type. Or the unlimited-mimosas-at-Sunday-brunch type. But chances are, at some point during your teen and young adult years, you downed a hefty amount of alcohol. While life is most certainly about #balance, unfortunately, no amount of kale or HIIT classes can totally undo the damage excessive drinking has likely done to your brain and body.
Whether in the form of wine on the couch, beers on St. Paddy's Day, or shots during your birthday celebration, if you've ever had four or more drinks over the course of two hours, you've engaged in binge drinking. Yes, really—that's about what it takes to get the average adult woman to 0.08 blood alcohol level, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). And before you even start with the "kids these days..." rant, listen up: Teens and college kids aren't even the biggest perps. One in six U.S. adults binge drink about four times a month, consuming about eight drinks per session, with over 70 percent of binge drinking episodes involving adults age 26 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The population that binge drinks the most? Retirees. Binge drinkers age 65 years and older report bingeing an average of five to six times a month—more often than even college students.
In your early 20s? Listen up.
While adults are just as guilty of binge drinking as The Youths, the health effects are way more serious for those age 25 and under. "Until about age 25, the brain is not fully formed and continues to grow," says Indra Cidambi, M.D., addiction medicine expert and medical director at the Center for Network Therapy. Meaning: Drinking too much alcohol can seriously eff it up.
When young people misuse alcohol, it causes damage to the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the frontal lobe, which leads to deficits in visual learning, memory, and executive functioning (that's your brain's ability to plan, make decisions, and get stuff done), says Cidambi. For example, in research done on rats, one study found that binge drinking led to decreased neurogenesis (the process of making new brain cells) in the hippocampus, while another study found that it disrupts gene regulation and brain development in ways that increase anxiety and excessive drinking behaviors.
Aside from questionable effects on your brain, binge drinking also impairs your sleep processes, says Cidambi—which is extra important for teens for a ton of reasons, according to the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. Early and excessive drinking also ups your risk of several serious illnesses including oral, stomach, and liver cancer, liver diseases, obesity, and heart problems like stroke, says Cidambi. This doesn't even touch on the secondhand risks of getting drunk, like having unprotected sex or drunk driving. (Seriously, unsafe sex is the number-one risk factor for illness and death in young women.) You might be thinking: "What about just having a beer or two?" The reality is that—at least when it comes to underage drinkers—90 percent of alcohol consumption is in the form of binge drinking, according to the CDC.
Being an early adopter with booze is bad news for addiction too: "People who drink before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence later in their life," says Cidambi. It doesn't look great even if you wait until 18 or 19: "If you look at the addicted population in America, nine out of 10 people started when they were teens," says Heather Senior Monroe, a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, and director of program development at Newport Academy, which assists adolescents and families struggling with mental health issues, eating disorders, and substance abuse. (Some good news: Exercise is linked to a lower risk of alcoholism.)
Binge drinking poses some serious risks for your mental health too. It's linked to a higher risk for depression and anxiety, says Cidambi. Sometimes alcohol is used to mask these issues—though they're usually exacerbated after the drinks wear off, says Monroe, so you get a bout of depression and anxiousness along with your hangover. In other cases excessive alcohol can cause the issues, says Cidambi.
Plus, when you're young, your brain isn't only developing executive functioning and memory skills—it's also developing emotional intelligence, including how to cope with anxieties and fears. "If you're hijacking that natural process with alcohol, your brain will remember that every time you were anxious you drank and it really worked. Your coping skills are going to become dependent on alcohol," says Monroe. This is more pronounced if you use alcohol as a default de-stressor as a teen (before you've developed coping skills) than when you're an adult (when you've learned somewhat how to handle the downs in life).
It's not your fault, either. Our culture has programmed us to expect alcohol at every social gathering, and to use it for any occasion: a tough breakup, a celebration, a Wednesday. "I don't think our culture has a healthy relationship with alcohol," says Monroe. "We actually use it as a social lubricant way too much, and way too often." Think about your own drinking behaviors: Are you dependent on alcohol in any sort of way, whether it's to have fun, to relax, or to feel normal? "That's when you're entering a gray area," she says. "Think about how many people without substance abuse disorders use alcohol for those things."
What if it's too late?
If you're sitting there thinking, "I did all of this, I'm screwed," take a breather. You can't get a do-over for puberty and college in order to redevelop your brain. (And, let's be honest, do you really want to go through all that again?) Taking steps now to live a healthy life, and have a healthy relationship with alcohol, can help combat some of the damage from your wild years. "Your body is incredibly resilient," says Monroe. "If you get back on track with a healthy diet, exercise, good sleep hygiene, hydration, etc., your body is going to bounce back. The older you are when you decide to clean up your act, the harder it's going to be."
If you've been using a bottle of wine or a tequila shot to ~deal~ for as long as you can remember, you'll have to relearn all the emotional skills you missed out on as a teen or young adult. "It's almost as if these substances pressed pause on your emotional life," she says. "As soon as you decide to press play again, you just need to catch up."
A huge part of that is just allowing yourself to feel your feelings, to sit with them, and not run to the bar or get that drink, says Monroe. Channel that anxiety, stress, or heartbreak into exercise, meditation, a Beyoncé dance class, or some sort of creative outlet. Think: Better out than in. (Try this meditation for mental and physical strength.)
If you regularly got black-out drunk during your formative years, you're not permanently broken and doomed to a mental institution. And you don't have to totally swear off booze—after all, it does have some health benefits when consumed *in moderation.* But if you still hit up unlimited bloody Marys at brunch every weekend? It might be time to rethink the drink in the name of your health.