Alcohol and depression
Read our alcohol and depression guide to learn how alcohol can worsen symptoms of depression, and in some cases cause them, and how changing your drinking habits can help.
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 lives.1
Common triggers for depression include relationship problems, unemployment, divorce and bereavement. But, does alcohol cause depression? In some cases, yes,
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, some people ask themselves, after I drink alcohol I feel depressed. This is because 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.
Drinking heavily and regularly is associated with symptoms of depression, although it can be difficult to disentangle cause and effect when the two go together. Alcohol is known to affect several nerve-chemical systems which are important in regulating mood. When the sequence is studied, it is clear that people can experience feeling depressed after drinking. It has also often been shown that reducing or stopping drinking can improve mood.3,4,5,6,7
Medications prescribed for depression should not be mixed with alcohol.8 Some of the commonly prescribed anti-depressants tend to increase the risk of relapse to heavy drinking in people who are trying to cut down or abstain, so antidepressants should be only taken with great caution.9,10,11
If your depression symptoms are being caused by alcohol dependence, 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 feel.2
After lowering alcohol consumption for 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.
If you’re still experiencing the symptoms of feeling depressed four weeks after cutting out alcohol, the Royal College of Psychiatrists advises that you talk to your GP.
Remember to tell them 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. They 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.
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 phone call.
 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.
 Boden, J.M. and Fergusson, D.M. (2011). Alcohol and depression. Addiction, 106(5), 906-914.
 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 and Alcoholism, 45(3), 241-246.
 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).
 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.
 Shaw, G.K., Waller, S., Latham, C.J., Dunn, G. and Thomson, A.D. (1998). The detoxication experience of alcoholic in-patients and predictors of outcome. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 33(3), 291-303.
 Driessen, M., Meier, S., Hill, A., Wetterling, T., Lange, W. and Junghanns, K. (2001). The course of anxiety, depression and drinking behaviours after completed detoxification in alcoholics with and without comorbid anxiety and depressive disorders. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 36(3), 249-255.
 British National Formulary, Section 4.3 BMJ Group and RPS Publishing.
 Charney, D.A., Heath, L.M., Zikos, E., Palacio-Boix, J. and Gill, K.J. (2015). Poorer Drinking Outcomes with Citalopram Treatment for Alcohol Dependence: A Randomized, Double‐Blind, Placebo‐Controlled Trial. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 39(9), pp.1756-1765.
 Kranzler, H.R., Burleson, J.A., Korner, P., Del Boca, F.K., Bohn, M.J., Brown, J. and Liebowitz, N. (1995). Placebo-controlled trial of fluoxetine as an adjunct to relapse prevention in alcoholics. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 152(3), 391–397.
 Chick, J. (2019). Unhelpful prescribing in alcohol use disorder: risk and averting risk. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 54(1), 1-4.