How alcohol and depression interact
Have you ever wondered if alcohol affects your mood? Curious if there is a relationship between drinking and depression? Trying to gather information to help you make healthier choices?
If you are answering yes, you wouldn’t be alone. As a counselor who works with men around substance abuse issues, I can tell you one of the most frequently asked questions guys ask is: “Does alcohol make my depression worse?”
The short answer to this question is an unqualified yes.
I decided to pen this piece because many people want to know about this topic. This is especially true for men; a group that historically has trouble talking about emotions like depression.
That said, it’s important to state that the material shared below isn’t confined to just the guys. The hard truth is anyone who drinks wine, whiskey, beer or any other alcoholic beverages can experience a negative effect on mood.
Over the course of time, the reliance upon such beverages can transform into abuse. I’ll explain more about this below and have included a video designed to help deepen your understanding.
What is alcohol abuse?
Abuse – you may be wondering what that term means? Here’s the non-clinical answer. In the context of what we are exploring here, it’s when a person drinks alcohol with the goal of medicating their feelings.
But doesn’t this make sense?
Anytime you use a substance in a way that it wasn’t designed, you are abusing it. I’m going to share a brief example below to help draw a mental picture.
Alcohol abuse example
Mike recently broke up with his girlfriend. In his heart, he truly thought she was “the one”. But for a number of reasons, things just didn’t work out. Feeling lonely and sad, he started drinking whiskey on weekends to chase away the loneliness.
As time went on, Mike found that his alcohol use expanded to weeknights because he continued to feel depressed. And to be sure, the whiskey seemed to temporarily help by allowing him to “check out”.
But just as sure as the sun rose, the depression was still there. In fact, it often made his sadness worse. At some point, it dawned on Mike that his use of alcohol might be unhealthy.
Can you relate?
Now that you’ve got the basics, it’s time to explore 10 specific ways drinking can worsen depression. When you read what follows, try to examine the material free of judgment.
Some points may seem obvious and others not so much. I encourage you to review them all to increase insight.
Are you ready? Let’s jump right in.
How alcohol worsens depression
1. Lowers serotonin and norepinephrine
When you drink alcohol in excess, it can have a negative effect on important mood-regulating chemicals called serotonin and norepinephrine (neurotransmitters).
The more these chemicals dip in your system, the crappier you feel. If you keep drinking, these neurotransmitters struggle to achieve balance. The result is an ongoing, depressed mood.
2. Reduced folic acid
Research tells us that people who regularly drink experience reductions in folic acid; a member of the B-9 vitamin family. That’s important to know because a lack of folic acid can cause your brain to age faster.
And the same lines of research reveal that people living with depression often have serious folic acid deficiencies (Cooper & Bolander-Gouaille, 2005).
3. Causes insomnia or hypersomnia
If you drink wine, beer, whiskey or other alcoholic beverages, there’s a good chance you already know they can interfere with sleep.
But what you may know be aware of is excessive drinking can seriously cause your mood to tank because of insomnia and/hypersomnia.
The differences between the two terms go something like this:
Insomnia is where you can’t fall asleep. Hypersomnia is where you can’t stay asleep. While certainly different, the end result is the same. The less you sleep, the less your body is able to repair itself and manufacture the neurotransmitters we explored earlier.
4. Depresses brain and nervous system
Many people do not know this but alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. That’s a critical bit of information because alcohol blocks stress hormones (corticotropins). These are chemicals your body releases to cope with difficult situations.
Robbed of cortisol, your mood can take a dive while your irritability increases.
5. Causes fatigue
An obvious point but worth mentioning. Drinking in excess can make you feel tired. That’s because your body is trying to heal itself from the harmful effects of drinking. It’s called withdrawal.
Over the course of time, fatigue has a way of driving your mood downward, which can suck because you don’t have the ability to do the things you want to – like grocery shopping, working out and hanging with friends.
6. Encourages isolation
We all think of drinking as a social activity. For many people, this is completely true. But for folks who abuse alcohol, not so much.
Instead, chugging down beer and wine become a private activity. In many cases, it happens in the privacy of the home and away from friends and family.
Fueled by feelings of guilt and shame, the result can be a situation where a person isolates. That’s not a good thing because we know from mounds of research that social interaction is critical to preventing depression.
What’s sad about this point is the more the person avoids others, the greater their depression becomes.
7. Increases anxiety
One of the ways alcohol makes depression worse is by causing you to become anxious. It doesn’t happen from casual drinking but instead from chronic alcohol use.
Without getting too clinical, what’s important to know is that alcohol stimulates the automatic nervous system. In turn, this can make you feel more animated and anxious. And because what goes up must come down, your mood will eventually nosedive.
Translation: A person who is already depressed feels worse.
8. Less physical activity
There are many lines of research that us exercise helps people to feel better – physically and emotionally. But when you drink a lot, there’s a good chance meaningful body movement isn’t happening.
What’s unfortunate is that the lack of physical activity causes a person already struggling with issues of low self-esteem and/or body image issues to feel worse.
9. Lack of nutrition
This point is simple. Drinking makes depression worse because you are less likely to feed yourself the nutritious foods your body requires.
In fact, the likely scenario is that you will eat unhealthy meals because you don’t have the time or energy to invest in smarter choices.
And here’s a little known-fact: alcohol can block vitamins and minerals in your system. In other words, even if you reach for something healthy, drinks have a way of minimizing any benefits.
Without these nutrients, your mood can go from bad to worse.
10. Feeling worthless and ashamed
The final area I’d like to touch on is your emotional state. To make a long story short, depression becomes worse when you feel ashamed about your drinking behaviors.
Alcohol abuse can also cause you to feel worthless – particularly when it seems like you are losing control.
These feelings of worthlessness and shame have a way of feeding off one another, which in turns causes more drinking. It can be a never-ending cycle that ultimately brings you to a very dark and desolate place.
You came to this page because you wanted to know about the relationship between alcohol and depression. The material shared above outlined the basics.
There are other issues not mentioned here that can also affect your mood. Examples include pre-existing health conditions, medications you may be taking or other substances you may be using.
If you are concerned about how alcohol may be impacting your life, the best thing you can do is talk to your doctor. Be candid about what’s going on and don’t hold anything back.
It’s possible your physician will suggest a treatment program. Much will depend on what’s going on in your life, including your history with alcohol and other variables.
To learn more about depression, be sure to visit this information page, published by the National Institutes for Health. It’s a great starting point as you continue gathering information.
Thanks for stopping by.
Cooper, A., & Bolander-Gouaille, C. (2005, January 1). Treatment of depression: time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12. Retrieved from Journal of Psychopharmacology: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0269881105048899