Alcohol and depression

Read our guide about how alcohol can worsen symptoms of depression and in some cases cause them, and learn how changing your drinking can help:

 

What is depression?

Most of us have days when we feel a bit low. But for some people, these feelings don’t go away – they get worse and may start to interfere with everyday life. This is what’s known as depression and it’s very common: according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one in five of us will be affected by it at some point in our lives1

Common triggers for depression include relationship problems, unemployment, divorce and bereavement. But people who drink heavily, regularly, may develop the symptoms of depression without having any of these problems. 

How alcohol can affect your mood

Alcohol is a depressant: it alters the delicate balance of chemicals in your brain. As you sip your first drink, the alcohol starts to affect the part of the brain associated with inhibition. That’s why a drink sometimes makes you feel more confident and relaxed. 

But as you drink more, something different can start to happen. Once your brain has high levels of alcohol affecting it, it’s possible the pleasant effects of your first drink will be replaced by negative emotions such as depression, anxiety or anger – even if you were in a good mood when you started drinking. 

Find out more about alcohol and anxiety

Drinking and depression: a vicious cycle

Regularly drinking above the low risk drinking guidelines of 14 units a week is linked to symptoms of depression. However, it can be difficult to know whether drinking is the cause of these symptoms or whether the symptoms of depression are leading to harmful drinking. Alcohol affects the systems of nerves and chemicals, in the brain and body, that help to control our mood2, so cutting back or stopping drinking can help to improve mood3,4,5,6.

What impact is your drinking having? Take our quick assessment

Relieving depression linked to drinking

If your depression symptoms are being caused by your drinking, stopping drinking should bring about a significant improvement. In fact, people in this position often find that cutting out alcohol entirely for just 4 weeks will produce a clear difference in how they feel2

After a few alcohol-free weeks, many people find they feel brighter. You may find it less difficult to get up and face the day, and friends and family may find you easier to get along with. 

To help prevent your symptoms returning, if you decide to resume drinking alcohol in the future, make sure you stick within the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines: Don’t drink more than 14 units a week (that goes for both men and women), have several alcohol-free nights each week and avoid binge drinking

Try to find other ways to relieve stress and lift your mood – you can find some useful tips and advice here

Try the DrinkCompare Calculator to see benefits of cutting down

Getting help for persistent depression

If you’re still experiencing the symptoms of depression four weeks after cutting out alcohol, the Royal College of Psychiatrists advises that you talk to your GP. Remember to tell him or her how long you’ve been alcohol-free. 

Your GP may recommend a talking therapy such as counselling or CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), or a self-help group. He or she may also prescribe you antidepressant medication. Remember, you’ll probably need to continue to avoid alcohol or only drink very lightly if this is to be effective.

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Drinkchat is a free service for anyone who is looking for information or advice about their own, or someone else’s, alcohol use. Our trained advisors are on hand to give you some confidential advice. You don’t even have to make a phonecall.

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References
  1. Royal College of Psychiatrists website. Depression: key facts. [Online]. Available at: http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/problemsdisorders/depressionkeyfacts.aspx. [Accessed 5 October 2017].
  2. Sari, Y. (2017). Commentary: Targeting NMDA receptor and serotonin transporter for the treatment of comorbid alcohol dependence and depression. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 41(2), 275-278.
  3. Cordovil De Sousa Uva, M., Luminet, O., Cortesi, M., Constant, E., Derely, M. and De Timary, P. (2010). Distinct effects of protracted withdrawal on affect, craving, selective attention and executive functions among alcohol-dependent patients. Alcohol & Alcoholism, 45(3), 241-246. https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/agq012.
  4. Craig, M., Pennacchia, A., Wright, N.R., Chase, H.W. and Hogarth, L. (2011). Evaluation of un-medicated, self-paced alcohol withdrawal. PloS one, 6(7), p.e22994.
  5. Potamianos, G., Meade, T.W., North, W.R.S., Townsend, J. and Peters, T.J. (1986). Randomised trial of community-based centre versus conventional hospital management in treatment of alcoholism. The Lancet, 328(8510), 797-799.
  6. Shaw, G.K., Waller, S., Latham, C.J., Dunn, G. and Thomson, A.D. (1998). The detoxification experience of alcoholic in‐patients and predictors of outcome. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 33(3), 291-303.
  7. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. (2011). Section 1.3.8: Interventions for conditions comorbid with alcohol misuse. In: Alcohol-use disorders: diagnosis, assessment and management of harmful drinking and alcohol dependence. Clinical guideline [CG115]. [Online]. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg115/chapter/1-Guidance. [Accessed 5 October 2017].
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