Alcohol and Depression: Is Drinking a Cause? (2023)

What is depression?

Most of us have days when we feel a bit low. But for some people, these feelings don’t go away – they get worse and their feelings of depression can start to interfere with everyday life.

Sometimes (although not always) there's a trigger for depression.

Common triggers include other physical health problems (particularly if they are severe or long-term), relationship problems, unemployment, divorce and bereavement. It can also be caused by drinking alcohol, and - If you’re already feeling depressed - drinking can make symptoms worse.1,2

The symptoms of depression range from mild to severe. But with the right treatment and support, most people with depression can make a full recovery.

If you need urgent help with your mental health, you don’t have to struggle alone. Get support straight away from the NHS.

Symptoms of depression

Depression can cause both physical and psychological symptoms – and they are different for everyone.3

Signs to look out for include things like continuous low mood or sadness, feeling hopeless and helpless, having no motivation or interest in things, and - for some people - thoughts about harming themselves.

Physical symptoms can include changes in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased), lack of energy, low sex drive and disturbed sleep.

If you experience symptoms of depression for most of the day, every day, for a few weeks, the NHS advises you to contact your GP surgery to get help. And if you’re worried about your drinking, there are alcohol support services that can help.

Find out more about alcohol support services

Depression is different to anxiety (a feeling of worry or fear about what might happen, inability to concentrate and – for some people - panic attacks). But depression and anxiety sometimes go together - feeling anxious and worrying constantly can make you feel low. You can find out more on our alcohol and anxiety webpage.

How alcohol can affect your mood

Alcohol is a depressant: it alters the delicate balance of chemicals in your brain.4

Drinking heavily and regularly is associated with depression.5,6

If you drink more than the UK Chief Medical Officers low risk drinking guidelines (it’s safest to drink no more than 14 units a week, spread over three or more days with several drink-free days, and no bingeing) it can have a negative effect on your brain chemistry, and lead to worse mental health.

14 units is equivalent to six pints of average strength beer or six medium (175ml) glasses of average strength wine.

Are you drinking more than the low risk guidelines?

Alcohol slows down processes in your brain and central nervous system, and can initially make you feel less inhibited.7In the short-term, you might feel more relaxed - but these effects wear off quickly.

The more you drink thegreater your tolerance for alcohol,meaning you need to drink more alcohol to get the same feeling. If you rely on alcohol to mask feelings of depression, you may find you become reliant on it – putting you at risk of alcohol dependence. For some people alcohol can be a trigger for suicidal thoughts too.

If you feel unable to keep yourself safe or think you might harm yourself it’s a mental health emergency. Call 999, contact your local mental health crisis team or go straight to A&E if you’re able to safely.

(Video) Alcohol and Your Mental Health | What's It All About?

Depression and binge drinking

Research studies have found that binge drinkers are more likely to have symptoms of depression,8 with people who reported regular hangovers most at risk.9

In addition, binge drinking (more than eight units of alcohol in a single session for men, or six for women) puts you at greater risk of accidents and injuries,10 and can also cause other serious health problems like alcohol poisoning.11,12

Are you binge drinking? Check the signs

Alcohol is known to affect several nerve-chemical systems which are important in regulating mood.

Relieving depression linked to drinking

The good news is that reducing or stopping drinking can improve your mood and mental health.13,14

In fact, people who are depressed often find that cutting out alcohol entirely for just four weeks makes a clear difference in how they feel.15,16 It’s important to keep it up in the longer-term too – because the drinking and depression are linked, going back to high risk drinking can bring the symptoms back.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists recommend that for people who need help with both their drinking and depression, it’s usually best to tackle the alcohol first and then deal with the depression afterwards, if it hasn’t lifted after a few weeks.17

After lowering alcohol consumption for a few alcohol-free weeks, many people find they feel better.

By drinking less, you may find it less difficult to get up and face the day, and friends and family may find you easier to get along with.18

To reduce the risk of your symptoms returning, if you decide to resume drinking alcohol in the future, make sure you follow your doctor’s advice. As a minimum, you should stick within the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines: don’t drink more than 14 units a week ( for both men and women), have several alcohol-free days each week and never binge drink.

A good way of keeping track of how much you’re drinking - to help spot patterns, avoid your triggers and stay within the low risk drinking guidelines – is with the MyDrinkaware app. Download the app now – it’s completely free to use.

Activities for drink free days

Getting help for persistent depression

If you’re still experiencing symptoms of depression after a few weeks, the NHS advises you to contact your GP surgery.

Remember to tell them about how much you drink or, if you’ve stopped, how long you’ve been alcohol-free. Your GP may recommend a talking therapy such as counselling or CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), or a self-help group.

They may also prescribe you antidepressant medication. If you are prescribed an anti-depressant, you shouldn’t drink any alcohol without checking with your doctor or pharmacist first – many aren’t suitable to be taken alongside alcohol.19,20

Find out more about medication and alcohol

The NHS website, Every Mind Matters, has advice on how to access support and treatment for depression in England. This includes options for NHS support, links to charities, helplines and communities, and tips on self-care.

If you are in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, there is separate advice on getting help with depression.

Drinkchat

Drinkchat is a free service for anyone who is looking for information or advice about their own, or someone else’s, alcohol use. Their trained advisors are on hand between 9am and 2pm every weekday to give you confidential advice through an online chat service.

If you would prefer to speak to someone on the phone, you can call Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 (available weekdays from 9am–8pm and 11am – 4pm at the weekend).

Chat with an advisor

(Video) The 'vicious cycle' of alcohol and anxiety | The Anxiety Project | ABC News

Alcohol support services

If you are concerned that you or someone you care about has a problem with alcohol there is a lot of help available. Here you can find useful links and phone numbers to get the support you need.

Support services

Alcohol and Depression: Is Drinking a Cause? (1)

Further advice and information

Arming yourself with strategies and tips can help you or a loved one take small steps towards big results.

Am I alcohol dependent? How to reduce your drinking Worried about someone else's drinking? How to stop drinking alcohol completely

References

[1]Boden, J.M. and Fergusson, D.M. (2011). Alcohol and depression. Addiction, 106(5), 906-914.

(Video) Does Alcohol Cause Depression & Anxiety - Is alcohol making you depressed?

[5]Bellos, S., et al. (2013). "Cross-cultural patterns of the association between varying levels of alcohol consumption and the common mental disorders of depression and anxiety: Secondary analysis of the WHO Collaborative Study on Psychological Problems in General Health Care." Drug and alcohol dependence 133(3): 825-831.

[13]Boden, J.M. and Fergusson, D.M. (2011). Alcohol and depression. Addiction, 106(5), 906-914.

(Video) Alcoholism & Depression | Alcoholism

[15]Sari, Y. (2017). Commentary: Targeting NMDA receptor and serotonin transporter for the treatment of comorbid alcohol dependence and depression. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 41(2), 275.

[16]De Visser, R. O. and Nicholls, J. (2020). Temporary abstinence during Dry January: predictors of success; impact on well-being and self-efficacy. Psychology & Health. 1-13.

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Last Reviewed: 1st July 2022

Next Review due: 1st July 2025

FAQs

Is drinking alcohol a symptom of depression? ›

Depression and binge drinking

Research studies have found that binge drinkers are more likely to have symptoms of depression,8 with people who reported regular hangovers most at risk.

What happens when you drink alcohol with depression? ›

Alcohol can lower serotonin and norepinephrine levels, which help regulate mood. Lower levels of these chemicals can make a depressed person more depressed. Alcohol temporarily cuts off the effects of stress hormones. This can exaggerate your depression symptoms because it depresses the brain and nervous system.

Do most alcoholics have depression? ›

At least 30%-40% of alcoholics also experience a depressive disorder. People are often seduced by the sedating effects of alcohol and use it as a kind of medication to help distract them from persistent feelings of sadness. Alcohol may appear to temporarily relieve some of the symptoms of depression.

Why people with depression should not drink? ›

Drinking can counteract the benefits of your antidepressant medication, making your symptoms more difficult to treat. Alcohol may seem to improve your mood in the short term, but its overall effect increases symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Does not drinking help with depression? ›

Helping depression

We know that most drinkers with depression will start to feel better within a few weeks of cutting out alcohol. So, it is usually best to tackle the alcohol first, and then deal with the depression afterwards if it has not lifted after a few weeks.

How does alcohol affect mental health? ›

Alcohol affects the part of your brain that controls inhibition, so you may feel relaxed, less anxious, and more confident after a drink. But these effects quickly wear off. The chemical changes in your brain can soon lead to more negative feelings, such as anger, depression or anxiety, regardless of your mood.

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