Is CBD Better than Alcohol? A Deep Dive into the Research
This is actually a common search on Google.
We've covered CBD versus Alcohol in-depth here but let's dig into why this is even a question.
And then answer the question!
It's actually very interesting when looking under the cover of what alcohol does and then compare to CBD.
There's also one huge difference….tolerance!
Let's get started with the following topics:
- How alcohol and CBD work in the brain
- Is CBD better than alcohol for GABA - calm and sleep
- Is CBD better than alcohol for Serotonin - mood, stress, and sleep
- Is CBD better than alcohol for the liver and brain
- Is CBD addictive like alcohol
- CBD versus alcohol for tolerance
Let's get started!
How alcohol and CBD work in the brain
We need to really understand how these two substances affect the brain.
Alcohol is a very small molecule that literally acts like a lubricant for neurotransmitters across the brain.
Think of what alcohol does...it cuts through fat. The basic infrastructure of our brain is built in fat!
Lipids (organic fat) form the basic barriers of our neurons so alcohol allows them to be more porous and therefore, boosts activity across these barriers.
This allows for a boost of exchange of key players such as GABA, serotonin, dopamine, and more.
We'll dig into what those "feel like" below but at a surface level, alcohol causes an initial increase in activity across key brain pathways.
Interestingly, the very reason a person may be drawn to alcohol towards addiction is an initial reduction in these key neurotransmitters.
Why can some people drink and forget about it while others are immediately on a lifelong journey of addiction?
The better question is...why does alcohol "fill the gap" for some people?
It could very well be a natural reduction in key neurotransmitters like GABA and serotonin (especially the latter).
Alcoholics and experimental animals that consume large quantities of alcohol show evidence of differences in brain serotonin levels compared with nonalcoholics.
Science is finally catching up with this idea:
preclinical and clinical data suggesting that low levels of brain serotonin could contribute to high levels of alcohol consumption along with impulsive and/or aggressive behavior, which are hallmarks of Cloninger's Type 2 alcoholic subtype.
Nowhere is this more apparent than women in their 40's and older.
The "glass of wine" (or 2-3) at night is practically a staple for women in their mid to late 40's.
Progesterone drops to 50% by age 40 (it drives GABA) and estrogen is about to fall off the cliff (it drives serotonin).
Alcohol is an attempt to support these key players (which we'll cover below).
The issue with alcohol is that the brain doesn't like outside boosting (the keyword) of critical pathways in the brain.
It will start to push back by reducing your natural level of GABA and serotonin function.
This is the basis for tolerance and it basically means that with long-term consumption (or even a hangover effect), you're left worse off than when you started.
That's not even looking at the dopamine (our reward circuit) effect and addiction.
Just straight tolerance.
What about CBD...how does it work?
There are many effects of CBD in the brain but we'll focus on those shared with alcohol to see if we can support those pathways without the negatives.
CBD works within the endocannabinoid system which is tasked with balancing other key systems such as:
- Endocrines system - hormones including steroidal hormones like estrogen and progesterone
- Immune system - inflammation and cellular birth/death cycle (key to cancer)
- Nervous system -neurotransmitters like GABA and Serotonin!
Okay...we're getting somewhere.
CBD essentially works like a feedback mechanism (technically called an allosteric negative modulator).
A perfect example of the net effect of this with inflammation (immune system):
- Healthy cell with low inflammation - CBD has no effect
- Healthy cell with high inflammation - CBD reduces inflammation
- Cancerous or virally infected cell - CBD INCREASES inflammation
Read that back over because it's really the key to CBD.
The last example makes sense once you realize that boosting inflammation (in the form of oxidative stress) is how the body gets rid of awry cells.
Chemo and radiation are just massive doses of oxidative stress that kill indiscriminately.
Research (which we'll see below) shows that CBD will support key pathways like serotonin and GABA when they're low and even reduce neurotransmitters when they are high.
That's the biggest difference with alcohol which boosts activity in one direction...potentially past a good limit which triggers both side effects and a push back from the brain the other way.
That's all well and good but you really have to understand the neurotransmitter themselves to translate this into how they feel!
Let's go there now with the two biggest ones affected by alcohol and CBD.
Is CBD better than alcohol for GABA - calm and sleep?
A quick introduction to GABA is in order. You're going to like this one.
GABA is basically the "brake pedal" in the brain and nervous system.
It slows down activity both within neurons and between them.
It also happens to be the direct target of benzos like Valium, Xanax, and Ativan (see CBD versus benzos) which gives you a pretty good indication of how it "feels".
GABA is critical with anxiety and sleep and also as a buffer from glutamate (the "gas pedal") which is highly destructive when unchecked.
That's the key with anxiety, insomnia, OCD, neurodegenerative diseases, seizures, ADHD, autism, etc.
Benzos are one of the biggest class of medications and that's a shame since they're incredibly addictive and quickly build tolerance.
Really, the biggest class of GABA stimulators is alcohol!
Alcohol is believed to mimic GABA's effect in the brain, binding to GABA receptors and inhibiting neuronal signaling.
Look at GABA's trajectory with more and more stimulation (such as with benzos or alcohol):
Yes, you can slow things down so much that the basic machinery (breathing, etc) stops.
Benzos and alcohol can do this with sufficient volume since they only push GABA in one direction.
If you're using alcohol for calm, sleep, or to "slow things down", it's probably GABA that you're supporting.
Slow things down is interesting….that's repetitive thoughts, panic, anxiousness, over-stressed.
What about CBD and GABA?
CBD functions in its normal role of feedback when GABA is outgunned (from glutamate, histamine, cortisol, etc).
After all, CBD's initial claim to fame was with seizures which is patently a GABA/glutamate mismatch.
Newer research also points to all the issues tied to GABA insufficiency:
- CBD and anxiety
- CBD and sleep
- CBD and OCD
- CBD and PTSD
- CBD and repetitive thoughts
There are lots of studies (and results) of this effect (see CBD and GABA) but let's look at one in particular which speaks to why some people may be drawn to alcohol.
It's known that early trauma can point to increased risk later with alcohol use:
Early childhood trauma is strongly associated with developing mental health problems, including alcohol dependence, later in life.
What's going on here?
Essentially, the developing nervous system is "primed" for excessive glutamate (gas pedal) or immune response (which also leads to more glutamate).
That's rather depressing that our system is "ramped" up from early events and we're dealing with it.
And here's the interesting study (of many) with CBD on this regard.
Essentially, they exposed mice to bacterial infection in utero (3rd trimester is very important for the priming effect).
This led to mental health issues and the GABA exhausting we looked at above later in life.
Look at CBD's effect:
these findings show that CBD can restore cannabinoid/GABAergic signaling deficits in regions of the brain implicated in schizophrenia pathophysiology following maternal poly I:C exposure.
To translate, CBD normalized this GABA issue (via cannabinoids in the body...remember...the balancing agents).
I don't think people (or the medical community) realize how powerful this is for mental health!
Alcohol might feel really really good to a person because that pathway is exhausted after a lifetime of fighting an impossible battle stemming from initial trauma or infection!
Or...genetically, you may just have lower GABA function and/or higher glutamate, histamine, and cortisol function.
Remember for women, if you have naturally lower progesterone (lately, tied to pre-term births), your GABA may run low!
Definitely, your GABA will drop during your 40's as progesterone falls by 50% at age 40 and continues down.
Now, the glass of wine for the ladies makes more sense!
You're losing your natural stress response player:
GABA reduces the secretion of corticoliberin (corticotropin-releasing hormone, CRH), which triggers a series of consecutive hormonal changes, leading to secretion of cortisol by the adrenal cortex
You're losing your sleep promoter:
GABA enables the body and mind to relax and fall asleep, and to sleep soundly throughout the night. Low GABA activity is linked to insomnia and disrupted sleep.
Alcohol will temporarily boost GABA but long term, it drops it lower and lower (tolerance).
CBD will support it when low with no tolerance or addiction.
So...CBD is better than alcohol for anxiety and sleep plus the range of issues (pain, dementia, etc) that rely on GABA function.
If you need a blaring example of the tolerance effect, look at the symptoms of cutting long term alcohol use cold turkey:
As a result, during withdrawal from alcohol, usually 6-48 hours after the cessation of drinking, seizures may occur.
That's GABA being suppressed and glutamate actually being boosted.
See CBD and alcohol addiction to learn more about weaning off alcohol with CBD.
Let's turn our attention to serotonin….maybe the biggest player with alcohol.
Is CBD better than alcohol for Serotonin - mood, stress, and sleep
GABA is a cog in the wheel of brain function but serotonin is a master controller.
The person behind the curtain effect.
Simply put, serotonin is a direct controller of all human behavior.
That's not an exaggeration...there are so many bizarre studies on serotonin and behavior.
- You're more likely to accept a bad offer when your serotonin level is low.
- Primates that see their social status fall also see a reduction in serotonin level
- Social isolation and rejection directly hits serotonin levels.
On and on and on.
Very fascinating but the immediate effects are more well-known.
In fact, serotonin is the target for the other big class of medications called SSRIs (Prozac, Lexapro, Effexor, and more).
We've covered these in detail at our CBD versus SSRIs.
The main basis for diagnosis is depression but they're cross-prescribed "off-label" for a host of different issues and that's just the brain!
The gut is a big player for serotonin (see CBD and gut inflammation).
Alcohol's effect on serotonin?
Alcohol exposure alters several aspects of serotonergic signal transmission in the brain. For example, alcohol modulates the serotonin levels in the synapses and modifies the activities of specific serotonin receptor proteins.
Remember how we said that alcohol use may just be self-medicating? Serotonin is probably THE target of that effect:
Abnormal serotonin levels within synapses may contribute to the development of alcohol abuse because some studies have found that the levels of chemical markers representing serotonin levels in the brain are reduced in alcoholic humans and chronically alcohol-consuming animals.
No wonder...look at the symptoms of low serotonin:
- depressed mood.
- impulsive behavior.
- low self-esteem.
- poor appetite.
Let's compare that with alcohol withdrawal symptoms:
- Feeling anxious or nervous
- Feeling irritable
- Feeling depressed
- Feeling wiped out and tired
- Mood swings
- Not being able to think clearly
- Having nightmares
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty sleeping
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Appetite loss
- Faster heart rate
- Pale skin
It's not just alcohol is masking the symptoms...it's making them worse:
For example, if alcohol exposure inhibits the function of a neurotransmitter receptor, the cells may attempt to compensate for continuous inhibition by increasing the receptor numbers or by altering the molecular makeup of receptors or cell membranes so that alcohol no longer inhibits receptor function. The 5-HT2 receptor appears to undergo such adaptive changes
Essentially, the brain will literally reduce the number and sensitivity of serotonin receptors with prolonged alcohol exposure.
That's why it's so brutal to come off of alcohol after long-term use.
Interestingly, the symptoms of too much serotonin are equally brutal:
- Agitation or restlessness.
- Rapid heart rate and high blood pressure.
- Dilated pupils.
- Loss of muscle coordination or twitching muscles.
- Muscle rigidity.
- Heavy sweating.
So balance is key here.
This explains the brain's response to alcohol which pushes serotonin up in one direction.
It pushes back!
It might be low mood the day after drinking or long-term depression from prolonged drinking.
So….CBD's effect on serotonin?
Again, an allosteric modulator or feedback mechanism.
One of our favorite studies looked at CBD's effect when serotonin is depleted due to prolonged pain.
That's right..serotonin is a major pain sensitivity manager and it doesn't really distinguish between physical and emotional or psychological pain!
CBD's effect following nerve injury:
Seven days of treatment with CBD reduced mechanical allodynia, decreased anxiety-like behavior, and normalized 5-HT activity.
- CBD reduced pain sensitivity (allodynia)
- CBD reduced anxiety (remember...physical and emotional pain under one heading)
- CBD "normalized" serotonin function
Not boosted. Not dropped. "Normalized" is the most important word in this whole section.
Later on, they used the word "rescued".
This is THE difference between CBD and alcohol.
Alcohol will push up serotonin in one direction so the brain pushes back
CBD works within a balancing system to support when low
We don't see the nasty side effect profile of serotonin syndrome with CBD at doses up to 1500 mg.
Okay...we've covered the two big "heavies": GABA and serotonin.
Let's now touch base on other effects on the body and brain that make CBD better than alcohol.
Is CBD better than alcohol for the liver and brain?
Night and day profiles here.
There's a metabolite (breakdown product) of alcohol called acetaldehyde.
It's a poison, plain and simple.
This is where liver and brain damage comes into play with alcohol use.
Most of the ethanol in the body is broken down in the liver by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which transforms ethanol into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde (CH3CHO), a known carcinogen.
Since alcohol can easily cross the blood-brain barrier, this same process occurs there as well.
Desperately trying to counter this poison, the body calls upon its primary detox agent, glutathione (see CBD and glutathione).
This is a great segue into CBD!
CBD has been shown to boost glutathione function:
Repeated doses of CBD in inflammatory conditions were found to increase the activity of glutathione peroxidase and reductase, resulting in a decrease in malonaldehyde (MDA) levels, which were six times higher in untreated controls
Malonaldehyde is a different poison created by smoking.
Same pathways for clearing it out though!
What about in the liver specifically?
CBD reduces alcohol-related steatosis and fibrosis in the liver by reducing lipid accumulation, stimulating autophagy, modulating inflammation, reducing oxidative stress, and by inducing death of activated hepatic stellate cells.
- CBD reduced the "fatty liver" effect from alcohol (called steatosis)
- CBD reduced the scar tissue in the liver (fibrosis)
- CBD reduced inflammation in the liver including oxidative stress
Remember, the liver is the key organ responsible for "disarming" alcohol in the body.
What about the brain?
Finally, CBD reduces alcohol-related brain damage, preventing neuronal loss by its antioxidant and immunomodulatory properties.
Check out CBD and brain repair for much more research on this front.
Also, CBD and oxidative stress (a key target of glutathione).
CBD and NAC are powerful tools for protecting the liver and brain.
So...in the end, polar opposite effects of alcohol and CBD for the liver and brain.
What about addiction?
Is CBD addictive like alcohol?
For genetic reasons, some people will fall into alcohol addiction almost instantly.
There's a known genetic difference among American Indians (Cherokee especially) where they lack the gene to break down alcohol which means it hits the brain at full force.
We all have variants of genes that give us more or less activity in a given pathway.
That being said, if you drink every day, you'll probably become addicted due to how alcohol boosts dopamine (our reward circuit).
Several studies have confirmed a dose-response relationship between alcohol intake and DA release in the NAC
The NAC is an area of the brain directly tied to addiction.
Alcohol addiction is a known concern (see CBD and alcohol addiction).
What about CBD?
Research is showing that CBD is:
- Not habit-forming - does not spike dopamine and reward responses
- Not hedonic - does not cause "pleasure"
Quite the opposite...there's interesting research that CBD may help "unlearn" addiction and yes, addiction is a learned (from the brain's point of view) behavior.
We've glossed over one really important piece...tolerance.
This is really the biggest driver of why CBD is better than alcohol.
CBD versus alcohol for tolerance
We've touched on it above but it's really important to understand this piece.
Alcohol directly boosts GABA and serotonin (along with others).
When a substance does this, the brain will push back and actually reduce the number and sensitivity of receptors in that pathway.
This means your natural, baseline level of GABA and serotonin goes lower with long-term exposure to alcohol.
It's the reason why you have withdrawals!
The higher the alcohol amount and the longer the use, the worse this gets.
In fact, stopping alcohol cold turkey can cause seizures since GABA is rock bottom, and glutamate (it's the opposite) has actually been boosted!
The easiest way to think of tolerance is this:
- Initially, alcohol boosts GABA and serotonin which feels good
- With more use, alcohol boosts GABA and serotonin to just feel normal
- Eventually, alcohol is needed to just not feel horrible (bring up to normal...at best)
This is really tricky and we cover it our CBD to wean off alcohol review.
It's true for all the addictive drugs really (just different pathways).
CBD does not build tolerance because it doesn't boost pathways like GABA and serotonin in one direction (up!).
It supports them when low.
Otherwise, we would see all the nasty side effects with long-term CBD use (See can you take CBD long term)...which we don't!
You only need to look at benzos and SSRIs to figure out what those symptoms are.
In fact, research is showing that CBD can help with withdrawal (see CBD and opioid withdrawals).
NAC is also a powerful player here.
Hopefully, we've sketched out why CBD is better than alcohol.
One note for women...really dial in the hormone piece as this may be the root cause (as they drop) for which alcohol is a poor substitute.
This starts in the early '40s and throughout perimenopause.
That's how we discovered CBD to begin with (brutal perimenopause...more here).
Let's look at some practical questions on CBD if it's better than alcohol.
How much CBD to offset effects of alcohol on mood and sleep
This is trickier than other topics.
Research is showing that base levels of CBD are around 40-50mg.
Studies on sleep show benefit at 160 mg per day (or night if you will).
Our favorite avenue deals with neurogenesis or brain repair and that peaks at 300 mg.
That's probably our top-level since neurogenesis drives BDNF, our brain's fertilizer and it's tied to all aspects of mental health.
Remember...alcohol may be filling the gaps for neurotransmitters with an underlying mental health result.
In fact, serotonin (target of SSRIs) directly drives BDNF function! See CBD and BDNF.
A study looked at drug addiction relapse and found the two biggest contributors:
- Stress response
- BDNF levels!
Goodness. Serotonin is also our major stress response buffer.
For that reason, the 300 mg peak level is our target.
As for alcohol withdrawals, studies looked at higher levels for the first 10 days at 600 mg daily.
This is for the initial transition and intense withdrawals.
What about the type of CBD?
What's the best CBD to replace alcohol
First, we have the following requirements:
- Organically grown in the US at an FDA registered farm
- CO2 processed
- 3rd party tested
- No THC (builds tolerance in our anandamide pathway)
- No heavy metals
- No solvents
- No pesticides
- No bacteria
- No mold
Our testing is available at the top of every page.
The next big question is important.
Everyone's pushing full spectrum but the side effect profile can be very different.
Roughly 40-60% of the population has histamine (allergy) issues.
That number goes up as we get older and for women (due to progesterone leaving).
This is a big issue with alcohol use which makes sense since histamine is released to get toxins out of the body:
At the periphery, alcohol, and acetaldehyde liberate histamine from its store in mast cells and depress histamine elimination by inhibiting diamine oxidase, resulting in elevated histamine levels in tissues.
The last thing we want to do is compound this effect with lots of plant material.
On top of that, almost all the research is on CBD by itself...isolate!
Then there's cost.
The true measure is the cost per mg of CBD.
We price ours at 2-3 cents per mg with the 6000 mg bottle before discounts up to 50%.
The reason is simple...we found CBD due to a brutal perimenopause (with benzo and SSRI prescriptions handed out freely). That story is here.
Alcohol basically hits both of those pathways (serotonin and GABA) with the same tolerance effect.
If we can help people avoid that trap, then it's all worth it.
Be well. Take care of each other. Take care of yourself.
Always work with a doctor or naturopath with any supplement!
The information provided here is not intended to treat an illness or substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.