Is Alcohol a Poison or Toxin? It’s Important to Know.

Alcohol a Poison?

Is alcohol a poison or toxin? It’s important to know the answer to the question.

A reader sent this email. It was in response to my discussion about the fact that alcohol is a drug.


Dear Dr. Hanson,

Regarding your article about alcohol as a drug. You miss a vital piece of information. You neglect to point out that the drug ethanol is a toxin [that] does indeed pass the blood brain barrier. (As do other drugs w/small enough molecules). This lifts alcohol out of the category you’ve invented. That’s whereby practically anything that enters the human body is a drug. Ethanol has a particular way of impairing cognition.

I hope that you look into the facts and include them into any future writing.



Dear Ms. MLD:

alcohol a poisonThank you for your email noting one of the distinctions among various drugs.

A fundamental axiom of pharmaceutical science is simple. “The dosage makes the toxin.” Unfortunately, it’s not something I formulated.

When consumed in moderate amounts, ethanol is not a toxin. However, in large enough quantities it can cause alcohol poisoning. In such cases, the dosage makes alcohol a poison or toxin. Although rare, this is also true of water.

Alternatively, alcohol in moderation is strongly leads to better health and greater longevity. Either abstaining from alcohol or abusing it leads to poorer health and shorter life.

Because, as you state, other drugs also pass through the blood brain barrier, alcohol is not unique in doing so. Nor is alcohol unique in any “particular way of impairing cognition.”

Research has also shown the powerful role of alcohol expectations on behavior. For example, in those societies that do not believe alcohol disinhibits, the substance doesn’t disinhibit.

The subject is a complex one. You obviously recognize some of this complexity. Listed here for your convenience are some additional links you might find of interest.

Alcohol and Behavior

Alcohol and Cognition

Best regards,

David Hanson

Popular Resources on “Is Alcohol a Poison?”

Dasgupta, A. The Science of Drinking. How Alcohol Affects Your Body and Mind. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

Meister, K. Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Health. NY: Am Coun Sci Health, 1999.

Tchamba, G. Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Health. Saarbrücken: Scholars’ Press, 2015

Technical Articles for “Is Alcohol a Poison?”

Antilla, T., et al. Alcohol drinking in middle age and subsequent risk of mild cognitive impairment. Brit Med J, 2004, 329, 538-539.

Espeland, M., et al. Association between alcohol intake and domain-specific cognitive function in older women. Neuroepide, 2006, 1(27), 1-12.

Galanis, D., et al. A longitudinal study of drinking and cognitive performance. Am J Pub Health, 2000, 90, 1254-1259.

Ganguli, M., et al. Alcohol consumption and cognitive function in late life. A longitudinal community study. Neurol, 2005, 65, 1210-12-17.

Kalev-Zylinska, M., and During, M. Paradoxical facilitatory effect of low-dose alcohol consumption on memory. J Neurosci, 2007, 27, 10456-10467.

Rodgers, B., et al. Non-linear relationships between cognitive function and alcohol consumption in young, middle-aged and older adults. Addict, 2005, 100(9), 1280-1290.

Zuccala, G., et al. Dose-related impact of alcohol consumption on cognitive function in advanced age.  Alco: Clin Exper Res, 2001, 25, 1743-1748.