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The Biological Reasons Why Alcohol Increases Depression

man drinking alcohol.

Most of us know how great alcohol can make us feel—and how terrible. However, the adverse effects of drinking can extend well beyond a Sunday-morning hangover. For some people, regular alcohol use can also contribute to depression, anxiety, or a generally low mood.

These effects won’t necessarily be severe for a casual social drinker, but for someone who struggles with an addiction to alcohol, they could be pretty serious. In many cases, the depression feeds into the addiction, and vice versa, making it that much more difficult for heavy drinkers to pull themselves out of the hole they’ve fallen into. There are a ton of traditional 12-step groups and non-12-step recovery programs. There are also peer support groups, such as SMART Recovery and LifeRing Secular Recovery. Getting help for addiction can be much more challenging when depression is also in the picture, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Why can alcohol increase depression?

To understand the link between alcohol and depression, you must look at what happens to your dopamine and serotonin levels after drinking. Alcohol is a natural depressant. Don’t be fooled by the initial boost in mood when you first start imbibing! The more you drink, the more your brain will scale back production of your “happy chemicals,” dopamine and serotonin. By the time you wake up the following day, you’ll probably be deficient in both of these chemicals, leading to feelings of anxiety or depression.

That isn’t the only reason, though. Alcohol affects more hormones than just dopamine and serotonin. The sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are also crucial for a good mood in both men and women (although in varying amounts), and alcohol has a depressing effect on these hormones, too. While the short-term consequences may not be quite as noticeable, the effects of heavy long-term drinking can compound the severity of someone’s depression as sex hormone levels gradually drop.

The good news? As long as someone isn’t drinking heavily several times per week, these effects will probably be pretty mild. Plus, even the effects of excessive drinking can be reversed—up to a point. The human body is quite resilient and can generally recover from depression caused or exacerbated by alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, long-term heavy drinkers will probably have a few other issues to deal with as they scale back their habit. These are a few of the main ones:

Heavy drinking can become a substitute for productive coping mechanisms

There are plenty of reasons to enjoy a drink now and then, but those who regularly overindulge probably aren’t doing so just because they like the taste. At that level of drinking, it’s probably being used to cope with something that would be hard to deal with sober.

Unfortunately, using alcohol as a coping mechanism brings short-term benefits and long-term drawbacks. It may work to numb stress or anxiety for a while, but each decision to use alcohol to cope is also a decision to avoid finding a better coping mechanism. Instead of constructively working through their issues, people who do this become dependent on a strategy that won’t actually help them over the long run.

Alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns

Even just a few drinks are enough to lower the quality of your sleep. You may feel drowsy after consuming alcohol, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to deep, restful sleep. Studies have shown that drinking can reduce REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is why it’s common to wake up the next morning feeling like you barely slept.

Drinking can make negative emotions more intense

You may have heard the saying, “there are three things that always tell the truth: leggings, kids, and alcoholics.” Alcohol is well known for removing inhibitions, including the social filter we usually use during everyday interactions. When people are feeling angry, frustrated, or even spiteful, they’re a lot more likely to lay their emotional cards on the table if they’ve been drinking.

It would be nice to imagine that speaking more “honestly” would have generally positive effects, but the reality is that alcohol can lead people to say things they regret later on. This can affect someone’s job status, reputation in the community, and close relationships with family and friends. And if that person is already depressed, these negative effects can make it even worse.

Alcohol can cause anxiety

Drinking heavily can worsen things like depression, sleep quality, and interpersonal relations, but it can actually cause anxiety. Even though alcohol initially relieves anxiety, fear, and stress, the real rodeo starts as the body detoxes from it. As alcohol leaves the body, it can affect brain chemistry in such a way as to cause panic attacks or anxiety, even for people who’ve never experienced those things before.

Hangovers are bad news, too

Drinking alcoholic beverages may feel fun in the moment, but too many cocktails can pretty much ruin the next day. Younger adults may be able to get away with it sometimes, but the older people get, the more they’ll notice the next day’s hangover. From the headache to the sensitivity to light to overall fatigue, even mild hangovers affect their mood, mental clarity, and work performance. It’s even common to experience low blood sugar the day after heavy drinking, which can worsen fatigue and even cause trembling and weakness.

If someone gets hungover once in a blue moon, that won’t be such a big deal, but if a person wakes up hungover several times per week, that will be very damaging to both physical and mental health.

The takeaway

Alcohol can have many social benefits when used responsibly, but for many people, the line between enjoyment and abuse is a fine one. Individuals whose drinking habits are contributing to depression, anxiety, or physical ailments, would benefit from figuring out why this is happening and how to head in a new, healthier direction.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialists can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

Contact a Resource Specialist

Zoe Behavioral Health is a non-12 step treatment facility in Orange County, California. They support patients with individualized mental health treatment, outpatient rehab, and therapy sessions.

Resources to Recover and Our Sponsor Laurel House Celebrate Black History Month

February is Black History Month, a time for celebrating the outstanding achievements of Blacks and African Americans and their central role in US history. It is also a time to recognize the struggles Black people have faced throughout our nation's history and give tribute to the strength and resilience of generations of Black Americans who have risen above adversity.

Black History Month originated from an idea by Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson, who wrote the Journal of Negro History in 1916 to herald the achievements of overlooked African Americans in US history and culture. In 1926 he led an effort by the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH) to officially declare the second week of February as "Negro History Week." These dates align with the birthdays of two crucial figures in Black American history: Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809), who signed the Emancipation Proclamation officially ending slavery in the United States, and the Black American abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818), who escaped from slavery to become one of the most influential civil and human rights advocates of the 19th century. In 1976, President Gerald Ford gave official governmental recognition to the observance by declaring February "Black History Month."

Without the contributions of Blacks and African Americans to more than 500 years of US history, culture, entertainment and the arts, science, athletics, industry and the economy, public service, and the Armed Forces, we would not be the country we are today.

Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/selective-focus-photo-of-a-man-holding-a-glass-of-whisky-9419395/

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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