Alcohol and depression

There seems to be a connection between alcohol and depression. Drinking a lot can make you feel worse

Most people in Scotland drink. It helps them to relax and feel more confident. If you’re depressed, it may help you feel temporarily like your old self. However for some people, alcohol could be having making depression and anxiety worse.

Heavy drinkers are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. It’s easy to become trapped in a cycle of drinking to relieve your symptoms of depression and anxiety which then causes worse depression or anxiety.

How does alcohol affect my mood?

Using alcohol to change your mood can cause problems because alcohol can have a depressive effect.

Alcohol affects many different parts of your brain. Despite what many people think, drinking a lot dulls the ‘feel good’ systems in your brain. This means you need to drink more to get the same good feelings that you had at the start.

Low mood and unpleasant feelings on stopping drinking are also more common if you have been drinking heavily. This can lead to a vicious circle where you drink to block out the unpleasant feelings caused by drinking or to forget your problems, which then causes more unpleasant feelings leading you to drink even more.

Alcohol and antidepressant medication

If you are taking antidepressants, it is best to talk to your GP or pharmacist about the effect of alcohol on your medication; Generally people on medication are advised not to drink alcohol, except in some small amounts, because:

  • Alcohol can counteract the potential benefits of the prescribed antidepressant drug
  • Some antidepressants also have a sedative effect and alcohol will increase this sedative effect, this increases drowsiness and the likelihood of accidents
  • The combination of drinking and taking medication may put a strain on your liver.

When should I think about cutting down?

Not everyone who has depression and who drinks will have a problem with alcohol. However if you are regularly drinking over the sensible limits (see below), it is a good idea to cut down. Particular danger signs to look out for are:

  • drinking more and using alcohol to block out your feelings
  • taking time off work because of hangovers
  • being criticised by family or friends because of your drinking
  • drinking to ‘cure’ a hangover
  • Using alcohol as a coping strategy for stress or to get through the day

Sensible limits

  • Men: No more than 3-4 units a day and no more than 21 units a week
  • Women: No more than 2-3 units a day and no more than 14 units a week.

We all need at least 2 days a week without alcohol. Doctors agree that drinking more than the sensible limit damages your health in the short and long term. It can increase your risk of depression.

Tips for cutting down

  • Pace yourself. Slow down and take small sips not big gulps. Make every second drink a soft drink
  • Occupy yourself – do something else enjoyable while drinking to help you drink more slowly
  • Keep a drinking diary so you can keep track of how much you’re drinking and recognise risky circumstances
  • Change your drink – try a lower alcohol beer or wine, or top up spirits with more mixer
  • Involve your friends and family in planning nights out that don’t involve alcohol – go to the gym, cinema, local café, bowling etc, or agree as a group that you won’t drink.

If you have trouble cutting down, it may be worth seeking help from your GP or one of the organisations listed below. You can also email Action on Depression or phone us on 0808 802 2020. For ways you can also improve your diet and improve your well-being visit our food and mood page.

Further help and support

Files: Download our factsheet on alcohol and depression