The Convert Files: The Word of Wisdom and Brain Shrinkage

A new study in the UK details reduction in brain volumes with just one glass of alcohol per day. How does this relate to the Word of Wisdom?

Have you ever had discussions centered around the Word of Wisdom in a group of people who aren’t of our faith? I’m sure if you’ve been in the Church for any length of time, you have. Inevitably, someone will question if we own Pepsi or Coca-Cola. Or we get questioned as to why we can drink pop but not coffee, because after all, pop has caffeine too. Beyond those surface levels of misunderstanding, oftentimes questions will lead to alcohol consumption, or lack thereof:

“Why don’t you drink alcohol?”

“Where does that law come from?”

“Isn’t some alcohol healthy for you, like wine?”

I joined the church as a young man, but even now I still get questions about the Word of Wisdom. It seems crazy to some not to consume alcohol.

For years it has been said that a glass of wine a day is heart healthy because it provides essential antioxidants to the body. But you’d be equally able to find studies refuting that statement as well. Science, if we have learned only one thing over the last couple of years, isn’t always black and white. It’s messy, nuanced, and often times not settled.

That’s why I believe it’s wise to take the best knowledge available at the time and work with it. Decades of studies and observational data show that alcohol consumption leads to many short-term complications, but also many devastating long term effects. Liver cirrhosis, recurrent pancreatitis, heart disease, heart failure, and ultimately liver failure are just a few. Alcohol consumption has been linked to decreased cognitive function and impulse and emotional control. But I don’t need to tell you that. You’ve probably seen the effects in someone you know.

Shrinking Brains

A recent study out of the UK, details another effect of long-term alcohol use. According to the study, light to moderate alcohol consumption—as few as one or two drinks a day—was linked with reductions in overall brain volume. The study which was published in Nature Communications states:

Although nearly 90% of all regional GMVs (Gray Matter Volumes) show significant negative associations with alcohol intake, the most extensively affected regions included the frontal, parietal, and insular cortices, with changes also in temporal and cingulate regions.

The study had several limitations, however, the data appears to be consistent with other studies done to date.

At the time the Word of Wisdom was revealed, they didn’t have long term longitudinal data on alcohol consumption. They didn’t have any of the modern medical equipment we use in diagnosis and treatment. And yet even though the Word of Wisdom wasn’t a codified covenant until 1851 (and even then, was not as “enforced” as it is today), faithful saints still chose to follow the revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith. A good primer on the Word of Wisdom is from our very own Geoff and Al in this 2017 episode of Sunday School Bonanza.

Beyond this study, we’ve also seen a spike in alcohol consumption during and post COVID. This could be related to a number of factors, but one national survey publish in Hepatology projected that there was a 21% increase in excessive alcohol consumption.

“They estimated that a one-year increase in alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic will result in 8,000 additional deaths from alcohol-related liver disease, 18,700 cases of liver failure, and 1,000 cases of liver cancer by 2040. In the short term, alcohol consumption changes due to COVID-19 are expected to cause 100 additional deaths and 2,800 additional cases of liver failure by 2023.”

Studies vs. Revelation

My journey into the Church was not marked by a struggle to stop consuming alcohol, coffee, or tea. I didn’t have to give up smoking. However, in my life I have seen the effects of excessive alcohol consumption, drug abuse, and the long-term effects of nicotine dependence. I made the decision not to drink long before joining the Church and for me it was an easy transition. When I investigated the Church and found people who were living like I was, it was a relief of sorts. These were people I didn’t need to explain or justify my decision to. Beyond their own personal experiences that led them to make the choice, they had the revealed word of God.

That being said, I know for others the transition into the Church may not have been so easy. This isn’t an article to pick on those who do drink or struggle with alcoholism. I have many friends and family that drink alcohol in moderation, and they are great people whom I love. For me, this is more of a reminder of the blessing of continual revelation from a modern prophet of God. Without all the studies, without the diagnostic equipment, the prophet Joseph gave a stunning revelation on our personal health. It was way ahead of its time. It was a law that probably seemed unnecessary when it was revealed, because no one really understood the true effects of these substances.

I’m sure a hundred years from now, those still alive will be able to look back and see revelation from our prophets and apostles today that is way ahead of its time. How wonderful when studies show what we have known to be true since the early 1800s. I love the blessings promised in living the Word of Wisdom. But lest I be accused of confirmation bias, the study doesn’t really matter to me because I have a testimony of the restored Gospel. I have a testimony of continuing revelation, and I believe that the revelation on The Word of Wisdom is part of that restored Gospel.

When we see things like this study, let’s give thanks for inspired apostles of Jesus Christ who lead and direct us in these latter days.

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