While we all have days of feeling low, there are many people for whom a persistent sadness does not go away. Having a drink when feeling blue may seem to provide relief, but especially for someone who suffers from depression, alcohol can make matters worse.
Why do alcohol and depression not go well together? This blog may help you or a loved one understand the relationship between the two.
Depression is a mood disorder, in which feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, and sadness persist to the point of interfering with everyday life. While there are many possible triggers behind depression – such as past trauma, unemployment, genetics, long-term injuries, or relationship problems – drinking habits can also cause life stressors and mental health conditions to arise.
In this mood disorder, anger, loss, sadness or emptiness appear for most of the day, every day, for a few weeks, or sometimes for months or years. It can also involve fluctuating between these negative feelings and feeling extreme joy and happiness.
This mood disorder is common enough to have affected 21 million adults in the United States in 2020. Depression can be spotted by different symptoms according to what type it is.
To diagnose depression and determine its type, a psychological evaluation is needed. While some types of depression are more severe than others, the mental disorder can hinder a person's ability to eat, sleep, work or have healthy relationships with family members and friends.
A person suffering from depression may lose interest in activities or hobbies they once enjoyed. It can be very difficult to find the motivation to complete daily tasks, practice self-care, concentrate or socialize. They may have difficulty sleeping, or find that they sleep too much. Fatigue and tiredness are common, while a significant change in weight or appetite may occur too. Feeling empty and hopeless for a long period or very intensely, can lead someone suffering from depression to have suicidal thoughts, or thoughts about death.
Alcohol is a major contributor to depression.
Many people drink alcohol to drown their sorrows after something bad – like losing a job or undergoing a bad breakup – has happened. But when a person needs a drink every time a problem occurs, alcohol use may have transitioned into alcohol dependence.
Dependency has to do with the need for alcohol, regardless of the amount. It could involve binge drinking – when someone consumes large amounts over a short period – or needing one sip of wine every day.
Binge drinking refers to more than five drinks in two hours for men, and more than four drinks in two hours for women, but could happen without alcohol dependency.
When the body has become used to the presence of alcohol, it may build up a tolerance, whereby it needs more and more of it to produce the same effect. In this way, dependence could transition into an alcohol use disorder, whereby a person will compulsively seek and drink the substance despite any negative consequences.
An alcohol use disorder shows the following signs:
The happiness, confidence, euphoria, and enthusiasm that alcohol produces lasts only a while. It affects the brain and the central nervous system as a depressant, and after this high, it causes damage.
While the consequences of alcohol abuse can be devastating to a person's mental and physical health, it is also dangerous enough to be fatal. More than 140,000 people die from excessive drinking in the U.S. each year.
Long-term effects of an alcohol use disorder involve:
Drinking on an empty stomach or drinking quickly leads to a rapid rise of alcohol concentration in the bloodstream. This causes a temporary block of memory transfers from short-term to long-term storage in the brain – known as a blackout, or memory gap – while someone is under the influence of alcohol.
Regardless of someone's mood, alcohol causes chemical changes in the brain that leads to negative feelings, including anger, anxiety, and depression. It also slows down how information is processed in the brain, making it even more challenging for a person to understand the consequences of their actions.
Alcohol can initiate mood swings in a person while impairing their memory capacity. It negatively affects coordination and reflexes, while also hindering a person's ability to focus.
Alcohol-related harm also involves others. Uninhibited behavior and a lack of judgment caused by alcohol can lead to injuries, such as falling, drowning, car accidents, or firearm injuries.
Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, alcohol can make a person act without understanding the consequences of their behavior.
There are strong links between mental health disorders and substance abuse. Out of the 20.9 million people in the United States who had a substance use disorder in 2020, 17 million also had a mental illness.
People with an alcohol use disorder are 3.7 times more likely to have major depressive disorder. But the question is whether alcohol misuse leads to depression, or whether those suffering from depression are more prone to alcohol abuse.
It goes both ways. A person could drink to self-medicate, attempting to relieve anxiety or depressive symptoms instead of getting treatment for it. They could drink too much, engage in binge drinking, or drink too frequently, leading to depression.
Regardless of which comes first, drinking automatically increases the risk factors involved in depression as it affects brain chemistry.
Certain factors place a person at a higher risk of experiencing depressive disorders and alcohol use disorder at the same time. These include a family history of depression or substance misuse, a history of trauma or abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, or genetics.
Co-occurring depressive and alcohol disorders have devastating effects on relationships with loved ones, on top of the damage to physical, mental, and emotional health.
In an attempt to cope with difficult mental health symptoms, many may drink to feel a sense of calm, but the mental health symptoms easily become worse the moment alcohol is out of the system. This leads them to drink more, increasing the chances of a person with a persistent depressive disorder developing an alcohol use disorder. The more alcohol they consume, the more dependent they become.
While it is common for alcohol dependency to develop among people with major depressive disorder, the opposite cause-and-effect relationship also exists. Persistently drinking alcohol greatly increases the chances of someone developing major depression, and it is particularly so for those who are genetically vulnerable to depressive disorders. Alcohol also aggravates pre-existing or underlying depression, further endangering their life.
Alcohol and depression interact in a cycle of feeding off one another, meaning that each makes the other's side effects much worse. The combination also puts off the chances of overcoming either disorder. One example is that alcohol fights the benefit of taking antidepressants by greatly reducing their efficiency.
Another example includes impulsive behavior. A person under the influence of too much alcohol is more likely to act on impulse or make bad decisions, which can easily ruin relationships, drain bank accounts or lead to unemployment. When something like this happens, depression could kick in, or in the case that it was already present, it can become much worse, very fast.
Alcohol is a depressant. Its consumption depresses the central nervous system and alters levels of the brain's neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and norepinephrine. These help to regulate mood. Alcohol also alters levels of dopamine, which controls the brain's reward system. Drinking causes fluctuation of these chemicals, and an unusually high or low level of them triggers symptoms of depression, along with other mental and physical health problems.
After a night of heavy drinking, post-alcohol depression may occur. This includes fatigue, feeling helpless and hopeless, irritability, headaches, body aches, sleep disturbance, suicidal thoughts, or self-harm. While these signs may seem similar to hangover symptoms, symptoms of depression can be much worse when combined with the effects of alcohol.
Self-medicating depression with alcohol is very dangerous, especially for those who are diagnosed with clinical depression. Alcohol interferes with depression to the point of increasing the risk of suicide and leading to other mental health problems.
Long-term alcohol dependence increases symptoms of depression over time and lowers a person's inhibitions, placing them in a very vulnerable position and at increased risk of acting on self-harming thoughts. After depression, alcohol and drug abuse is the most frequently occurring suicide risk factor.
While it may seem the toxic relationship between alcohol and depression leaves no room for a solution, most depressed people who drink will start to feel much better within a few weeks of cutting out alcohol. Even reducing the amount of alcohol consumption can make a great difference.
Since binge drinkers are more likely to have symptoms of depression, making a rule for oneself to avoid binging can help. Establishing drink-free days or a few alcohol-free weeks may provide relief from depression symptoms, especially for those who binge drink.
However, managing something like major depressive disorder is different for every individual, and the nature of a co-occurring disorder can be complex. Abruptly stopping drinking alcohol or attempting to abstain alone can be difficult and also dangerous.
That is why it is highly recommended to seek treatment from a treatment facility that specializes in treating depression and alcohol misuse. A facility can offer a safe and effective method of detoxing and managing alcohol cravings. It can also address the underlying causes of drinking and provide treatment for the mental health disorder. People with depression who undergo treatment can make a full recovery.
If you or a loved one is struggling with depression and alcohol, Cirque Lodge can help.
We understand that depression and alcohol addiction are complex, individual, and personal. That is why we take a holistic approach, combining the traditional 12-step model with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), group therapy, and experiential therapies to provide the most effective treatment for you.
Cirque Lodge's integrated dual diagnosis programs treat both mental health conditions and substance use disorders and are designed according to your physical, mental, and emotional needs.
With a private inpatient detox and 24/7 supervision, you can rid your body of alcohol as comfortably as possible, while our various treatment options will support your mental and physical health and personal growth as you become substance free.