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: one in five of us will be affected by it at some point in our lives.
If you think you may be suffering from depression, there are lots of things that can help. But be aware: alcohol isn’t one of them.
What happens when you drink?
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 can help us feel more confident and relaxed.
But as you drink more, more of your brain starts to be affected. And more drinks don’t necessarily mean increased pleasurable effects. Once your brain has high levels of alcohol affecting it, it doesn’t matter what kind of mood you were in before – it is possible negative emotions will take over.
Regular and heavier drinking alters circuits in the brain that control motivation and ability to feel enjoyment. These are the symptoms of depression.
What’s more, such drinking may affect your relationship with your partner, family and friends, or impact on your performance at work. All in all, life can feel more depressing… but there can be a vicious circle if you still believe that having a drink will help1.
Breaking the alcohol/depression cycle
The first step to dealing with the problem is to find out whether:
- You are drinking to try to relieve your depression; or
- Your drinking is causing your symptoms.
Because both depression and dependence on alcohol generally come on gradually, it can be hard to remember which came first. But luckily, there’s a simple way to find out. For most people, cutting out alcohol entirely for 4 weeks will produce a clear difference in how they feel2.
To help prevent your symptoms returning, if you decide to resume drinking alcohol in the future, make sure you stick within the CMOs’ guidelines. It is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis (that goes for both men and women), and if you wish to cut down the amount you drink, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days a week.
Try to find other ways to relieve stress and lift your mood – you can find some useful tips and advice here.
If you still feel depressed, at least it will now be easier to treat
If you’re still experiencing the symptoms of depression four weeks after cutting out alcohol, it’s probably time to seek some help. Talk to your GP and remember to tell him or her how long you’ve been alcohol-free.
Your GP may recommend a talking therapy such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). He or she may also prescribe you antidepressant medication. Again, you’ll probably need to not drink or only drink very lightly if this is to be effective.
(1) Neuropharmacology. 2017 Jan 18. pii: S0028-3908(17)30013-8. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2017.01.012. [Epub ahead of print]
Neurochemical and metabolic effects of acute and chronic alcohol in the human brain: Studies with positron emission tomography.
(2) The Royal College of Psychiatrists: http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/problemsdisorders/alcoholdepression.aspx