Does Alcohol Make You Depressed? Is There Any Connection?

Alcohol consumption and depression often happen at the same time (1). This makes people wonder whether one comes after another. In fact, Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and depression frequently worsen each other, forming a vicious cycle.

This article will explore the link between depression and alcohol, examining current research, related disorders, and reasons why alcohol can trigger tears, with remedies and treatments for alcohol-induced depression.

Let’s dive in!

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Can alcohol make you depressed? Find out the connection

Why does alcohol exacerbate depression? After all, on most occasions, we drink alcoholic beverages just for temporary comfort. But it can instead lead to heightened feelings of melancholy. So, how exactly does alcohol affect us physically and psychologically?

Alcohol’s effects on your brain and depression

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How does alcohol affect our brain? 

Alcohol functions as a depressant. It hinders the neurons’ performance by reducing their ability to send electrical signals, which are essential for maintaining normal brain operations (2). For instance, alcohol reduces the excitatory actions of the neurotransmitter glutamate while boosting the inhibitory actions of the calming neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). 

Alcohol affects the brain differently based on how much is consumed and how often. Drinking alcohol can have two main kinds of effects: the immediate danger of alcohol poisoning and the lasting harm to the brain caused by excessive drinking. 

Alcohol poisoning harms the brain by disrupting how it communicates and processes information (3). Additionally, drinking too much alcohol can cause lasting harm to the brain, making a certain part called the hippocampus–responsible for memory storage–get smaller (4).

A study done at the University of Oxford found a connection between the amount of brain shrinkage and the volume of alcohol consumed. Strikingly, even people who were seen as light or moderate drinkers experienced a reduction in their hippocampus size compared to those who didn’t drink alcohol (5).

How alcohol affects depression 

Acute alcohol intake causes a rise in serotonin levels (6), lifting our mood and feelings of calmness. This is the reason behind some individuals’ initial feelings of joy when drinking (7).

Nonetheless, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to long-term disruptions in serotonin function (8). This can result in persistent mood disturbances, increased feelings of depression and anxiety disorders, and difficulty experiencing pleasure or regulating emotions.

Alcohol-induced depressive disorder: Causes and symptoms

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Alcohol-induced depressive disorder refers to a syndrome resembling depression arising shortly after and during alcohol intoxication or withdrawal. 

The psychological symptoms of alcohol-induced depressive disorder include (9):

  • Persistent feelings of sadness or emptiness
  • Reduced interest or pleasure in previously enjoyable activities
  •  Constant sense of tiredness, low energy, and lack of motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things
  • Excessive self-blame or feelings of inadequacy.

Physical symptoms of alcohol-induced depressive disorder include: 

  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness) is not due to other factors.
  • Significant changes in eating habits lead to weight loss or gain.
  • An increase in restlessness and impulsiveness or a slowdown in movements and speech.
  • Various physical complaints are not due to any other medical condition, such as headaches, body aches, or gastrointestinal distress.

Alcohol and depression often coexist, creating a complex interaction and reinforcing each other in a harmful cycle. Alcohol affects brain functions by disrupting neuron communication, leading to both short-term alcohol poisoning and long-term brain damage. 

Acute alcohol intake increases serotonin to boost our mood, but if we keep drinking, it can disrupt serotonin function, leading to chronic mood disturbances and depression. Furthermore, alcohol-induced depressive disorder happens when being drunk or quitting it, and it comes with both mental and physical symptoms.

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Why do I cry when I’m drunk: Self-loathing after drinking

Self-loathing refers to the act of treating oneself poorly by criticizing and looking down on oneself. Many people think about drowning sorrows with drinking, but unexpectedly, some might end up crying or causing disturbances after drinking or even engaging in self-blame. 

Even though sometimes it’s just a “drinking when sad” situation, have you ever considered the connection between these emotions and drinking? Or perhaps, during moments of sobriety, you’ve wondered, “Why do I cry when I’m drunk?”

Impulsive manifestation: diminished functioning of the cerebral cortex

The outermost cerebral cortex of our brain is responsible for rational thinking and reasoning. When drinking, alcohol inhibits the activity of the cerebral cortex. If the function of the cerebral cortex diminishes, executive control ability, decision-making, and risk management will decrease (10).

Since the impulses that are normally suppressed by ration become obvious, people who are usually calm might become excessively emotional after consuming alcohol, or those who are alcohol intoxicated might be overwhelmed with sadness. 

Self-loathing after drinking: role of GABA 

Some may experience anxiety and fatigue in the morning after drinking. This is primarily attributed to the influence of GABA and glutamate. 

GABA is the inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, while glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. When we consume alcohol, it stimulates the production of GABA and inhibits the effects of glutamate (11).

But when you stop drinking, the function of GABA will diminish, and the effects of glutamate will increase. Hence, we will feel heightened anxiety and agony even before we drink the alcohol (12).

Drinking’s impact on emotions and cognitive function can be complex. Based on the research, drinking can lead to emotional lability, such as crying or disturbances due to impaired reasoning caused by alcohol’s effect on the cerebral cortex. Furthermore, when not drinking, decreased GABA and heightened glutamate can cause anxiety.

Ways to treat and prevent alcohol depression disorder

Many treatments have been suggested to address depression and alcohol use disorder at the same time. In the following section, let’s talk about some approaches that help us regain control over our mental and emotional well-being. 

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Natural ways to stop using alcohol for anxiety

In addition to medicines, we can make some life changes ourselves. According to research, the following natural approaches have been shown to have positive effects on overall mental health:

Anxiety from the effects of substance abuse can be exacerbated by nutritional deficiencies, as well as compromised processes in the body. This is why nutrition and lifestyle factors are so important. 

1. Nutrition 

  • Foods rich in Magnesium: legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (19, 20). This is because Magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system.
  • Foods rich in Zinc: oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks (21). Zinc is important as it modulates gut, hormonal, and neurotransmitter functioning, all of which influence our mood. 
  • Probiotic & prebiotic foods like natto, yogurt, kimchi, asparagus, beets, artichoke, and garlic (22): Adding in natural sources of pre and probiotics supports the health of the microbiome, which is key in regulating numerous aspects of nervous system health and mood.
  • Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and broccoli support healthy gut and liver health and are also packed with B vitamins, which are often compromised due to the effects of alcohol. B vitamins are imperative for nervous system functioning and neurotransmitter production and aid the body in methylation, an integral process that supports detox, among other key functions in the body.
  • Bitter greens, including arugula, dandelion, and nettle, promote healthy digestion and liver function as they support bile flow.   
  • Loading up on antioxidants such as berries is also important to support oxidative damage that often results from alcohol or substance use.
  • Rich sources of Vitamin C, such as oranges and strawberries, may also be recommended to negate the effects of oxidative stress while also supporting the adrenal glands, which may be hyperactive due to stress. 
  • Sources of B12 from salmon or locally sourced grass-fed beef are also important. B12 is a cofactor for serotonin and dopamine synthesis, two important neurotransmitters that regulate mood. Furthermore, B12 supports methylation.
  • Adequate hydration is also significant for supporting the body’s detox pathways. Filtered water or green tea are some great choices. 

2. Meditation 

Meditation is a method that increases focus and awareness by using techniques like concentrating on breath or mantras. With its origins in different cultures and religions, it’s now commonly practiced to manage stress and enhance concentration, mood, and emotional well-being (23).

Numerous studies have indicated that meditation offers beneficial effects on mental health. It results in alleviating symptoms of anxiety, particularly for generalized anxiety disorder, or a tendency to alleviate anxiety symptoms (24, 25, 26, 27).

3. Exercise regularly 

Regular exercise has varying effects on our brains. Firstly, physical activity shifts attention away from anxious matters. Through enhancing control over attention, physical activities increase the anxiety-reducing benefits of increased working memory load (28).

Additionally, exercise raises the heart rate, increasing crucial anti-anxiety neurotransmitters in the brain. It activates the frontal regions, aiding in amygdala control, which is our response system for sensing threats (29).

Furthermore, research suggests a positive loop with regular exercise. Long-term physical activity not only enhances focus but also benefits our executive functions. Improved executive functions, in turn, reinforce our adherence to exercise habits (30).

4. Enough sleep 

Numerous studies indicate a correlation between sleep and depression (31, 32). Sleep is imperative in regulating all processes in the body– including digestion, mood, and microbiome health. In fact, the brain and body depend on sleep to renew and restore. 

 So, to achieve a better quality of sleep, here are a few suggestions for you:

  • Consider the timing of caffeine intake: Research shows that consuming caffeine within 6 hours of bedtime can significantly disrupt sleep (33).
  • Ensuring sufficient sunlight exposure: Research suggests that receiving a minimum of 30 minutes of natural sunlight can influence our internal clock, improving sleep quality and mood (34).
  • Regular exercise: According to research, exercise has multiple pathways that influence sleep. It can enhance mood through endorphin release (35), reduce daytime sleepiness (36), and promote deep sleep (37). 

Though we used to believe that exercising before bed makes falling asleep difficult, a 2019 systematic review indicated that it is not time that the main factor affects our sleep quality but the intensity of the exercise (38).

5. Mutual-help group 

A mutual-help group is a gathering of people who share a common challenge or concern. The group provides a supportive environment where members can exchange experiences and receive emotional support to tackle their issues. 

A study has shown that individuals taking antidepressant medications who attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings at the same time have a reduction in depressive symptoms (39). 

It is also found that the impact of participation in alcohol mutual-help groups on quitting drinking is related to a decrease in depression symptoms (40). 

Medication and psychotherapy

Since alcohol serves as a depressant, doctors may prescribe some antidepressant medications, such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), to elevate serotonin levels in our brains. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter for which there is a consensus that it plays a crucial role in depression (13).

In addition, to reduce excessive reliance on alcohol or cravings for alcohol during withdrawal, doctors may prescribe medications that help diminish alcohol cravings, such as Naltrexone and Acamprosate (14).

Naltrexone reduces cravings by weakening the pleasurable effects of alcohol, but the result may be varied sometimes. As for Acamprosate, it blocks negative cravings stemming from withdrawal. Its effectiveness in preventing relapse has been proven in many studies (15).

What’s worth noticing is that medication is commonly used alongside psychotherapy, and one common choice is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) (16). It has demonstrated its effectiveness in addressing both depression and alcohol dependence (17, 18).

Medication, like SSRIs, can elevate mood by increasing serotonin levels. Drugs like Naltrexone and Acamprosate help reduce alcohol cravings, and CBT is effective for both alcohol use and depressive disorder. 

Natural methods include dietary changes (Magnesium, Zinc, omega-3s, probiotics), meditation to enhance focus and emotional well-being, regular exercise that improves mood, quality sleeping time, and mutual-help groups for emotional support.

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How long does hangover depression last?

Hangover depression refers to feelings of sadness or a low mood after alcohol consumption. In contrast to typical hangover symptoms, the depressive emotions after hangover depression are more intense. Research points out that alcohol-induced depressive disorder can last up to 3 to 4 weeks for those with Alcohol Use Disorder (41).

Why do alcoholics wake up at 3 am?

Drinking alcohol has a negative impact on sleep quality. While alcohol can help initiate sleep, it suppresses REM sleep and can cause awakenings later in the night. This results in fragmented sleep patterns, leading to multiple awakenings during the night (42).

What is considered heavy drinking?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heavy drinking is different based on gender. For men, heavy drinking is generally described as consuming 15 or more drinks per week, while for women, it typically refers to consuming eight or more drinks per week (43).

Summary

The connection between depression and alcohol is complex, with alcohol acting as a depressant that can disrupt brain function and lead to chronic mood disturbances. The cycle of alcohol consumption and depression can reinforce each other. 

Understanding this relationship is crucial in addressing alcohol-induced depressive disorder and finding effective treatments, including medication, therapy, and natural strategies like dietary changes, meditation, exercise, and mutual-help groups.

How Do You Feel About This Article?

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

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