How Alcohol Makes Your Depression Symptoms Worse

by | May 22, 2024 | Blog

The connection between alcohol and depression is complex and bidirectional. Drinking too much alcohol can bring on depressive symptoms, and people with depression often turn to alcohol to find relief. This creates a vicious cycle of dependence. While drinking alcohol can initially lift your mood and make you feel relaxed, it has a tendency to worsen depression symptoms over time. 

In this article, we look at the different ways that drinking alcohol can make your depression symptoms worse. We’ll start by examining the effects of alcohol on your mind and body, then we’ll discuss the link between alcohol and depression, including how it makes symptoms worse and how reducing alcohol can improve depression. 

How alcohol affects your mind

Many people associate alcohol with feeling relaxed or cheerful, but how exactly does it work on the mind? Below, we look at the effects of alcohol on your brain and mood. 

Neurotransmitter disruption

Alcohol disrupts the delicate balance of mood-regulating neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain. These include serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). All of these chemicals play a pivotal role in mood regulation, pleasure, and relaxation. When alcohol interferes with these neurotransmitters, you can experience mood swings, increased anxiety, and worsened depressive symptoms. 

Depressant effect

A lot of people drink alcohol to have a good time, but it actually has a depressant effect on the central nervous system. This means it slows down brain function and impairs cognitive abilities, potentially deepening feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lethargy associated with depression. 

Impact on behavior and judgment

Alcohol can affect the part of your brain that controls judgment and inhibitions. This might make you feel more relaxed and confident, leading some people to engage in behaviors they might normally avoid. For someone with depression, this can exacerbate feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. 

Withdrawal effects

If you drink alcohol regularly, your body can become physically dependent on it. When you stop drinking, you might experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, irritability, or depression. For some people, fear of experiencing withdrawal symptoms can perpetuate alcohol use and create a cycle that worsens depression over time. 

Sleep disturbances

While alcohol can initially make you feel sleepy, it actually disrupts the quality of sleep later in the night. Alcohol interferes with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is essential in regulating emotions and processing stressful experiences. 

How alcohol affects your body

Alcohol doesn’t only affect the mind, it also impacts the entire body. Short-term effects include an upset stomach, migraines, bloating, and alcohol poisoning. In the long-term, alcohol can increase your risk of developing serious health conditions. 

Here’s how alcohol affects different systems of the body. 

Liver damage

One of the most well-known effects of alcohol is its impact on the liver. The liver metabolizes alcohol and breaks it down into less harmful substances. Drinking too much alcohol can overwhelm the liver and lead to inflammation, fatty liver disease, hepatitis, and cirrhosis. 

Heart problems

Drinking small amounts of alcohol can have some cardiovascular benefits, but excessive drinking can harm the heart and blood vessels. Alcohol can increase blood pressure and triglycerides, potentially contributing to the risk of heart disease and stroke. 

Weakened immune system

Long-term alcohol abuse can weaken the immune system and make the body more susceptible to illnesses and infections. It does this by impairing the function of white blood cells which defend the body against pathogens. When you have a compromised immune system, it might take longer to recover from illnesses and can increase your risk of developing chronic health conditions. 

Gastrointestinal issues

Alcohol irritates the GI tract, leading to inflammation and damage to the lining of the stomach and intestines. This can result in conditions like gastritis, ulcers, and gastrointestinal bleeding. It can also interfere with how your body absorbs essential nutrients in the digestive system and lead to nutritional deficiencies over time, particularly vitamins B, D, and folate. 

It’s important to remember that drinking alcohol in moderation is typically fine. But if you find yourself needing to drink more to receive the same effects, it can lead to excessive drinking and some of the health problems described above.

The link between alcohol & depression

Alcohol and depression have a complicated relationship. People with depression can turn to alcohol as a way to self-medicate, and excessive alcohol consumption can make depression symptoms worse. 

Let’s take a closer look at the link between alcohol and depression. 

Connection between alcohol and depression

Nearly one-third of people with major depressive disorder also have alcohol use disorder. Some research also shows that children with depressive disorders are more than twice as likely to start drinking alcohol early on in life. At the same time, excessive alcohol use, or binge drinking, has also been linked to depression and anxiety.

One explanation for this connection is that people experiencing depressive symptoms turn to alcohol as a form of self-medication to alleviate their stress and escape from negative emotions. While alcohol might provide temporary relief, it often exacerbates depressive symptoms in the long run and creates a vicious cycle of alcohol use and worsening depression. 

The effects of self-medicating with alcohol

If you have major depression, it may be tempting to turn to alcohol for relief. However, doing so can make your depression worse. Here’s how:

  • It can worsen symptoms: Alcohol might initially make you feel better, but regularly drinking alcohol will worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. 
  • You may become dependent: People with depression have an increased risk of substance use and addiction. Relying on alcohol as a coping mechanism can lead to dependence, making it harder for you to function without it. 
  • It can disturb your sleep: Having high-quality sleep is essential for people with depression. Alcohol has a negative effect on sleep, which can worsen mental health symptoms. 
  • It can interfere with treatment: In some cases, alcohol can interfere with antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and pain medications, either reducing their effectiveness or causing reactions.

Mixing alcohol and antidepressants

In most cases, it’s best to avoid drinking alcohol if you’re taking antidepressants. Doing so can make your symptoms worse and pose some risks. Some effects of mixing alcohol with antidepressants include: 

  • Worsened symptoms: Alcohol can counteract the benefits of your medications, leading you to feel more depressed or anxious. While you might initially feel better after drinking, over time your symptoms will worsen and be more difficult to treat. 
  • More side effects: If you take other medications with your antidepressants, such as anti-anxiety medications, sleep medications, or prescription pain medications, you might experience more side effects when drinking alcohol. Many medications don’t interact well with alcohol and can cause problems. 
  • Increased blood pressure: A certain class of antidepressants, called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), can cause a dangerous spike in blood pressure when combined with certain alcohol beverages (and foods). If you’re taking MAOIs, be sure to know which alcoholic beverages can cause a reaction and avoid them.
  • Impaired alertness: Combining alcohol with antidepressants can impair your judgment, coordination, and motor skills more than if you were just drinking alcohol on its own. 
  • Increased drowsiness: Some antidepressants cause drowsiness. When coupled with alcohol, these effects are intensified and you may find yourself feeling sedated or drowsy more than usual. 

Before you drink alcohol, make sure you’ve spoken with your medication management provider and understand any risks and implications that may be involved.

How alcohol can make depression symptoms worse

The way that alcohol interacts with your body can make depression symptoms worse. Here’s how:

  • Affects mood regulation: Alcohol can reduce the levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin and norepinephrine. Lower levels of these chemicals can make you feel more depressed. 
  • Cuts off stress hormones: When you drink alcohol, it temporarily lowers the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone. This can inhibit stress initially but will depress the nervous system and brain, intensifying depression symptoms.  
  • Activates a gene linked to depression: According to Robert Post of the National Institute of Health (NIH), drugs like alcohol or cocaine can activate a gene in your body that’s linked to depression and other mental health conditions. This can cause depression or manic-depressive episodes amongst other mental health problems.
  • Disturbs sleep: Alcohol can initially make you drowsy, but it will disturb your sleep later on in the night. Poor quality sleep can intensify and worsen depressive symptoms. 
  • Leads to isolation: People with drinking habits can begin to isolate themselves from others. This can worsen depression symptoms as humans are social creatures who become depressed when spending too much time alone.
  • Triggers health issues: As outlined earlier in the article, alcohol can harm the physical body and lead to the development of health issues. This can lead to or worsen depression. 
  • Impairs judgment: While some people choose to self-medicate with alcohol because it impairs judgment and loosens inhibitions, this can actually lead to poor behavior with negative consequences that worsen feelings of depression.

How reducing alcohol can improve depression

Just as alcohol has the potential to worsen depression, reducing or cutting out alcohol can improve your mood and relieve depressive symptoms. Generally, reducing or eliminating alcohol can improve depression in many ways: 

  • More stable mood: The depressant nature of alcohol can exacerbate mood swings and feelings of intense negative emotion. As a result, limiting alcohol use can lead to less mood fluctuations and more stable emotions. 
  • Better sleep: Alcohol is known to disrupt the sleep cycle and lead to poor quality sleep, which worsens symptoms of depression and cognitive function. By reducing or cutting out alcohol, you can enjoy more uninterrupted and restorative sleep, leading to an improved mood the next day. 
  • Better coping skills: If you tend to self-medicate with alcohol, replacing drinking can lead you to develop healthier coping mechanisms for managing stress and negative emotions. Whether it’s exercise, mindfulness, or hobbies, these strategies can be valuable tools for managing depression symptoms and preventing relapse.

If you experience depression and drink alcohol regularly, it’s recommended to start by cutting out alcohol first and then treating your depression. Sometimes, simply reducing or removing alcohol from your life can relieve depression symptoms and make you feel better. In some cases, people with depression cut out alcohol for just four weeks and noticed a clear difference in how they felt. 

Tips to reduce alcohol intake

If you feel alcohol is worsening your depressive symptoms and want to cut down, we have some helpful strategies to get you started: 

  • Reduce temptation by not storing any alcohol at home
  • Only drink when you are with others and avoid drinking alone
  • Limit drinking to special occasions or mealtimes
  • Talk to your friends and family about doing activities that don’t involve alcohol
  • Learn mindfulness or relaxation techniques to help you manage stress.

When to get help

If you’re concerned about your drinking habits or fear it may be affecting your mental health, help is available. The best thing to do is reach out to your healthcare provider. They have lots of experience with people going through something similar and will be able to check your physical health and connect you with support services. 

In some cases, if you are physically dependent on alcohol it can be harmful to stop suddenly. Speaking to your healthcare provider first can ensure you have the appropriate tools and medications to reduce alcohol safely. 

If you feel you or someone you know may need help for alcohol addiction, reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) on 1-800-662-4357. This 24/7 hotline can refer you to treatment centers, support groups, and community-based services in your area. 

Summary: Alcohol and depression

Drinking alcohol is a common social activity, but it’s important to do it in moderation to protect your physical and emotional health. Drinking too much alcohol – or turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism – can worsen symptoms of depression and make the condition harder to treat.

If you or someone you know are struggling with depression symptoms, help is available. The supportive team at BestMind are here to guide you on your journey to well-being. Contact us to discuss depression treatment options and one of our helpful staff members will get in touch. Alternatively, fill in our depression self-assessment test and we will reach out to book a consultation with you.