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The uneasy relationship between alcohol and brain injury

Alcohol and brain injury

After a brain injury, the body’s tolerance to alcohol is greatly reduced

Whether we’re on holiday abroad or enjoying the Christmas festivities, an alcoholic drink tends to not be too far from reach for many of us.

But after a brain injury, the body’s tolerance to alcohol is greatly reduced, and many survivors find that they are no longer able to enjoy alcohol in the same way as they did before their injury. The reduced tolerance to alcohol means that many effects of brain injury are exacerbated after drinking, such as memory problems, mobility issues, speech and fatigue.

It is clear that there is an uneasy relationship between alcohol and brain injury. Survivors are often faced with the challenge of balancing a desire to enjoy the social life they had before they sustained their injury with the acceptance that alcohol now affects them in a different way.

We asked brain injury survivors to tell us about how their relationship with alcohol has changed.

‘I don’t drink anymore’

For some, the enjoyment of drinking is simply outweighed by the effects caused.

“I don’t drink anymore,” said Louise Fry on the Headway Facebook page. “I couldn’t drink to start with because of meds, but now? It just hits me too hard.”

Janet Creamer agreed: “Drinking is now a no-no. Just one alcoholic drink does awful things to my brain. It feels like I’ve drunk way too much and I get that spaced out feeling.”

Others, like Giles Philip Hudson, have found that being advised by doctors to no longer drink has actually been a blessing in disguise.

After sustaining my brain injury and spending over four months in hospital, doctors advised me not to drink alcohol. During this time I found I no longer needed to drink alcohol to make me feel good or enjoy myself. I certainly don’t need the headaches it causes.

Enjoy a drink at home with family and friends

Naturally, many people want to continue to be able to enjoy a drink every now and then, particularly at social gatherings. But what if going to the pub is too daunting a prospect?

Home drinking is increasingly popular as supermarket prices tumble, a trend the Scottish Government has tried to address through minimum pricing.

For some, staying in allows them to enjoy a drink without some of the challenges of being in a busy, crowded and noisy pub or bar, as depicted in Headway’s short film Lost in a crowd.

“Since my disability I do not feel comfortable going into a bar as I may find it hard to use the restrooms,” said one member of Headway’s HealthUnlocked online community, “so my drinking is done in my home.”

Patricia Nugent on Facebook agreed: “We tend to drink at home so it is easier and less stressful to moderate intake,” she said.

If you are choosing to drink at home, it’s important you monitor your intake carefully.

The charity Drinkaware ( has some useful advice for home drinkers, including:

  • Keep track of how many units you’re consuming
  • Use smaller glasses
  • Use proper spirit measures to avoid inadvertently pouring yourself a double or triple measure
  • Eat as you drink
  • Invest in a good bottle stop to make that bottle of wine last longer

Out and about

For others, however, a good night out is still a must! If that’s the case, then planning ahead can be the key to the success of the evening.

“I don’t go out much, once every two months,” said Michelle Richardson. “But it’s lovely to have some drinks and let my hair down and forget how challenging recovery is for a while.

I do have to prepare for a night out by having an afternoon snooze.

If you do want to enjoy a night out on the town with friends, here are some more top tips:

  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach
  • Check your medication allows you to drink
  • Make sure your friends know about your brain injury, lowered alcohol tolerance levels, and any other issues such as an intolerance to noise
  • Drink water between alcoholic drinks and avoid getting into rounds
  • Don’t forget to take your Brain Injury Identity Card with you!

Alcohol-free alternatives

Of course, not drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you can’t still go out to pubs and bars.

“My husband has been told he can’t drink alcohol,” said Amanda Hopkins. “So, as he is a real ale drinker, we made a pact to still go to country pubs but to just check out ‘alcohol-free’ ales and to become connoisseurs of the growing ‘alcohol-free’ ranges that are now appearing from many microbreweries.

“It won’t be quite the same but we hope it will be a bit of fun tasting them.”

Kathy M agreed: “I sometimes have a non-alcoholic beer shandy so I feel like I am having a pint and I’ve discovered things like elderflower cordial with soda. There’s nothing wrong with ordering a fancy coffee or mocktail either.”

There’s nothing wrong with ordering a fancy coffee or mocktail either.

Headway’s new factsheets on alcohol after brain injury are available to download below.


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Headway - the brain injury association is registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales (Charity no. 1025852) and the Office of the Scottish Regulator (Charity no. SC 039992). Headway is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England no. 2346893.

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