Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/5/2021
Alcoholism and depression are two things that we talk about together often, but while most of us assume there's a connection between alcohol dependence and clinical depression, most people have never asked about the science.
Is alcoholism more common in depressed people? Can depressive symptoms be a result of excessive alcohol consumption?
The link between alcohol use and the risk of depression isn't rock solid, and there are questions the medical community still has yet to answer — and yet, there’s proof that alcohol-dependent people are more likely to end up with depression symptoms.
The best place to start is at the intersection of depressive disorders and alcohol cravings.
Heavy drinking can have some nightmarish impacts on your health, and we’re not just talking about the dehydration that comes from a night of binge drinking without a glass of water.
It’s no secret that alcohol consumption at an extreme can leave people with any number of medical condition symptoms, and while alcoholics anonymous may prevent further damage, alcohol abuse can leave permanent damage on your liver, your esophagus, your heart and, yes, even your brain.
Alcohol affects your brain in several ways.
It causes intoxication by interfering with the brain’s communication pathways. It can cause subliminal intoxication, which slows your reaction time and alters your behavior and judgment slightly. This is typically considered “one drink” territory for men, depending on weight.
Alcohol can also cause euphoria, which is a deceptive confidence and relaxed sensation that may be a result of memory and reasoning impairment.
Drinking causes your vision to blur, as the alcohol begins to affect your occipital lobe.
The alcohol may also affect your parietal lobe at this point, slowing your reaction time and affecting your motor skills.
After that, you may begin to experience blackouts, lose consciousness, lose short-term memory and experience other more severe side effects as your hippocampus is affected.
Things continue to decline until, at an excess, you get to death.
So yes, the booze you consume can do more than put a beer gut on your midsection or increase your likelihood of sending risky texts.
As for depression? Well, things don’t get much better there.
It’s clear to the medical community that there’s a direct cause-and-effect relationship between excessive drinking and mental problems, and that does extend all the way to depression.
Excessive drinking can cause mental health problems big and small. That might include depression or anxiety, as well as certain cancers.
Some symptoms of inebriation can become permanent, as confusion, amnesia, eyesight issues and other symptoms are also associated with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome — which can be caused by alcohol.
And there’s a strong correlation between having an alcohol abuse disorder and developing depression. One study even suggested that the neurophysiological changes or metabolic changes you experience from drinking could be the root cause. Regardless of the cause, however, the result is that people with alcohol abuse disorders are twice as likely to develop depression.
Depression is always better managed if certain risk factor behaviors like excessive drinking and insomnia are managed directly, clearing the way for better depression management.
But even if you get the drinking back under control, you’ll have to address the depression itself for it to go away.
Antidepressant medications manage depression by controlling serotonin levels and other brain chemicals to regulate your mood and give you some normalcy.
A review of more than 60 research studies found that serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were one of the most effective antidepressants on the market right now.
These medications keep the supply of serotonin in your brain from going too low, though they have some side effects you might want to ask your healthcare provider about — including anxiety, sleep issues and sexual dysfunction.
Arguably the most well-known form of therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT treats depression and other mood disorders by helping patients to recognize depressive or dysfunctional thought patterns so that they can respond to and control the negative thoughts and how they affect their mood.
Other forms of therapeutic practice — like psychotherapy — have well-established benefits, and even meditation can benefit people with depression.
One of the elephant-in-the-room questions here is whether you can start antidepressants and other medications if you have a serious drinking problem, and the answer is: maybe.
The conversation you have with your healthcare provider is incredibly important. Being open and honest with them about everything — from the other medications you’re on, to the symptoms you’re experiencing, to your history with alcohol and drugs and everything in between — is crucial.
Antidepressants often don’t mix well with alcohol and can lead to increased sedation and other serious side effects.
Some medications like venlafaxine are even used for treating certain cases of alcoholism for people who have symptoms of depression.
It can be taken safely when a healthcare professional is aware of your alcohol use disorder.
Please remember, however, that suicides and overdoses do increase in likelihood as people using antidepressant medications drink.
Drinking and depression are two very dangerous bedfellows to keep, especially if you’ve decided that you’d like to make it a group activity.
Our advice? Talk to someone. Talk about the drinking, the feelings of depression — talk about all of it with a trusted person — a friend, a family member, a mental health professional, etc. Treatment for alcohol dependence is just a conversation away, as is help for this slightly more complicated mental health condition
We’re guessing that if you’re looking for answers, your next step is breaking your silence. It’s a hard step, but a necessary one. From there, you’ll have support.
That support should include a healthcare professional. They’ll be able to answer your questions about alcohol use and your depression treatment options, including the different types of therapy available.
If you’re just here to keep reading and not ready to talk yet, you’ll find more answers with our mental health resources guide.
A final note: talking about your mental health can be easier than you think. Consider scheduling an online psychiatry evaluation to get started.