Written by Zawn Villines
Alcohol can make a person feel depressed and may even trigger or worsen depression. Depression is also a risk factor for using alcohol, since people who feel depressed may use alcohol to ease their symptoms.
Several studies, including a 2013 study that used a nationally representative sample, have found that people who drink to manage a psychiatric condition are more likely to abuse alcohol.
In this article, learn more about the links between alcohol and depression, as well as when to see a doctor.
Links and interactions
Alcohol and depression interact with one another in several harmful ways:
Alcohol may cause or worsen depression
Drinking too much alcohol is a risk factor for new and worsening depression.
A 2012 study found that 63.8% of people who are dependent on alcohol are also depressed. The study did not test whether alcohol use causes depression, however.
Research from 2011 found that having an alcohol use disorder significantly increased a person’s risk of having depression.
Alcohol may even increase the risk of depression in babies exposed to alcohol in the womb. Children born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are more likely to develop depression later, according to an earlier study from 2010.
Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it slows activity in the central nervous system. This can temporarily make a person feel sleepy, tired, or sad.
Chronic alcohol use may change brain chemistry in a way that increases the risk of depression.
Alcohol can increase the risk of dangerous symptoms
Alcohol use in a person with depression may intensify the symptoms of depression and increase the risk of adverse and life-threatening outcomes.
A 2011 study of adolescents seeking treatment for mental health conditions such as depression found that at the 1-year follow-up, teens who drank alcohol were more likely to attempt suicide or engage in other forms of self-harm.
A 2011 analysis found a correlation between using alcohol before the age of 13 and later engaging in self-harm.
Research from 2013 also supports the link between alcohol use and self-harm. The study found that teenagers with depression who drank alcohol were significantly more likely to act on suicidal feelings.
- If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Call 911 or the local emergency number.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
Depression may increase alcohol use
Some people with depression drink alcohol to ease their symptoms. Over time, this can lead to alcohol dependence and abuse.
People who drink to cope with psychological distress may drink more over time, especially when they wake up feeling anxious or depressed. Chronic drinking significantly increases the risk of alcohol abuse.
Symptoms of depression
For many people, feeling sad or unhappy is a prominent symptom of depression. Depression is more than just sadness, however. It can affect many aspects of a person’s life and can even be debilitating. Depression is the leading worldwide cause of disability.
Symptoms of depression include:
- getting no joy from hobbies or activities previously enjoyed
- feeling that there is nothing to look forward to or no hope for the future
- unexplained health issues, such as headaches, muscle pain, or stomach problems
- changes in sleep habits, such as sleeping much more or less than usual
- unintentionally losing or gaining weight
- having feelings of worthlessness
- having a hard time making decisions
- having trouble concentrating on work or school
- experiencing thoughts of death
- contemplating suicide or other forms of self-harm
Symptoms of alcohol use disorder
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that excessive drinking claims 88,000 lives per year. The CDC defines excessive alcohol use as:
- binge drinking, which is when females consume four or more drinks in a single session or males consume five or more drinks in a single session
- any alcohol use during pregnancy or by people under the age of 21
- heavy drinking, defined as eight or more drinks per week for females or 15 or more drinks per week for males
Other signs that a person may have an alcohol use disorder include:
- needing to drink to feel “normal”
- being unable to stop drinking despite trying
- concealing drinking from others
- doing things that harm oneself or others when drinking
- being distracted by cravings for alcohol
- needing to drink progressively more to get the same effects
Antidepressants and alcohol
Many doctors recommend avoiding alcohol while taking antidepressants.
Both substances may make a person feel less alert, so they may be dangerous if a person takes them together. This is especially true for those who use other medications or have a chronic medical condition.
Some doctors advise drinking in moderation if a person must drink, which means no more than one drink per day for females or two drinks per day for males. According to the CDC, a single drink means:
- 12 ounces (oz) of beer
- 5 oz of wine
- 8 oz of malt liquor
- 1.5 oz of hard liquor
The specific effects of alcohol on antidepressants depend on the antidepressant a person takes. It is vital to discuss the risks and possible interactions of every medication with a doctor.
A person should also monitor their reaction to alcohol when using antidepressants. Some people who take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may become severely intoxicated when they use antidepressants.
People using other drugs or who use nontraditional antidepressants should be especially mindful of drinking.
Benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety drugs that some people with depression may use, may help with alcohol withdrawal. When combined with alcohol, however, they can cause life-threatening intoxication.
When to see a doctor
Both depression and alcohol use disorder are treatable medical conditions. Some people may feel unsure about seeing a doctor, but the right treatment can ease symptoms and help a person live a better, happier life.
Anyone who suspects they have depression or who would like to reduce their alcohol intake but are having trouble should see a doctor.
Go to the emergency room for signs of alcohol overdose, such as loss of consciousness, serious confusion, or problems breathing.
People undergoing treatment should tell their doctor if:
- their symptoms get worse after starting treatment
- their symptoms do not improve within a few weeks of beginning treatment
- they have other symptoms, such as anxiety or mood swings
- they have thoughts of suicide
A combination of alcohol use and depression can create difficulties in treatment. A person who uses alcohol and who has depression may not be able to tell which symptoms are due to which issue until they seek treatment.
While quitting alcohol is crucial for people with alcohol use disorder and depression, avoiding alcohol will not cure depression. People may wish to seek quality psychological care from a doctor, therapist, or both.