Many people living with depression drink alcohol to try to numb their symptoms. For a short period of time, many of them feel some sort of relief. They might even feel confident, euphoric, and energetic. But after a while, alcohol can make them feel drowsy, lightheaded, nauseated, irritable, and foggy-brained instead, leaving them confused and even more depressed.
When they want to feel better, they may drink again. But once again, the relief is only temporary. This back and forth pattern of drinking often leads to a damaging cycle of alcohol abuse, which can cause relationship and financial problems and more emotional turmoil. Instead of actually making people with depression feel better, alcohol can actually make them feel worse as the substance starts to affect their physical, emotional, social, and mental health.
Alcohol & The Brain: Why Drinking Doesn’t Help Depression
When people drink, alcohol enters the bloodstream and alters the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry, boost, and balance signals sent throughout the brain. Alcohol, which acts as a stimulant and a depressant, affects the following neurotransmitters:
- Dopamine, which plays an important role in determining our mood, memory, and sensations of pleasure and pain. Dopamine also helps regulate individuals’ motivations and is the chemical that drives people to seek food, sex, exercise, and other activities crucial to their well-being and survival.
- GABA, which blocks some brain signals and decreases activity in the nervous system. When GABA attaches to proteins called GABA receptors, the neurotransmitter produces a calming effect in the body.
- Serotonin, which helps stabilize mood and promotes feelings of well-being and happiness. Serotonin also helps regulate our sleep and eating habits.
- Glutamate, which is an “excitatory” neurotransmitter. Glutamate increases brain activity and energy levels.
Alcohol affects both “excitatory” and “inhibitory” neurotransmitters, which explains why the substance acts like a stimulant and a depressant at the same time. At first, alcohol boosts the levels of “excitatory” neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. This is what makes individuals feel happy, excited, courageous, and energetic when they first start drinking. However, these stimulating effects don’t last long.
As time passes, the brain adapts to the excess dopamine and serotonin and starts to produce fewer neurotransmitters. As dopamine and serotonin levels diminish, an individual’s mood plummets. At this point, alcohol starts to act like a depressant, slowing activity in the central nervous system.
As alcohol’s stimulating effects start to wane, the substance binds to GABA receptors in the brain, mimicking the activity of the GABA neurotransmitter. This makes individuals feel temporarily relaxed and carefree. But drinking too much over stimulates GABA, causing drowsiness, blackouts, memory loss, unconsciousness, and in some cases, coma. At the same time, alcohol suppresses the release of glutamate, which makes individuals feel lethargic and fatigued. This is why alcohol doesn’t actually help depression.
Even though alcohol temporarily increases an individual’s pleasure, drinking actually dampens their mood. “By jacking up dopamine levels in your brain, alcohol tricks you into thinking that it’s actually making you feel great—or maybe just better if you are drinking to get over something emotionally difficult,” David DiSalvo, author of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do The Opposite, explained. “The effect is that you keep drinking to get more dopamine release, but at the same time you’re altering other brain chemicals that are enhancing feelings of depression.”
Here at Soba Recovery, we believe that the more people understand how alcohol truly affects depression, the more they’ll stop turning to the substance as a temporary solution. So, let’s explore a few specific ways alcohol worsens depression.
How Alcohol Worsens Depression
Despite what most people might think or feel, alcohol makes symptoms of depression worse. Here’s why.
- Alcohol lowers serotonin and norepinephrine levels. Serotonin and norepinephrine are neurotransmitters that help regulate mood. Typically, these brain chemicals make individuals feel happy, energetic, and attentive. Lower levels of these neurotransmitters can make individuals feel anxious, irritable, worthless, foggy-brained, and depressed. Individuals living with depression typically feel even more depressed when these brain chemicals are low.
- Alcohol may lower folic acid levels. Folic acid helps the body make healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. Alcohol can lower levels of folic acid. Individuals with a folate deficiency typically have anemia, which can cause tiredness, lightheadedness, irritability, headaches, and lethargy. Folic acid deficiency is also commonly associated with depression, an aging brain, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- Alcohol can disturb healthy sleep patterns. Drinking beer, wine, whiskey, or any other alcoholic beverage affects the way individuals sleep. Some individuals may experience insomnia, or the inability to fall asleep, while others deal with hypersomnia, the inability to stay asleep. Despite their differences, the results of both conditions are the same. The body can’t properly repair itself and create the neurotransmitter balance needed to create a stable, healthy, mood.
- Alcohol typically encourages isolation. Humans are social beings, but most people that use alcohol as a coping mechanism drink in private. The more they feel the need to drink, the more isolated they become. Unfortunately, that same isolation can lead to guilt and shame, triggering feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness which are common symptoms of depression. Being isolated can also make individuals feel like they aren’t loved and valued.
- Alcohol can lead to poor nutrition. Most people who abuse alcohol have an imbalanced diet. They are less likely to eat nutritious foods because their priority shifts to consuming more alcohol rather than making healthy eating choices or cooking at home. Additionally, alcohol can block vitamins and minerals from entering the body. When the body doesn’t receive the nutrients, vitamins, and healthy foods it needs, individuals' moods can take a turn for the worst.
Alcohol can also:
- Lead to poor economic outcomes, which can result in stress that may worsen symptoms of depression.
- Impair judgment and lead to impulsive behavior. This can lead to negative consequences that trigger feelings of worthlessness and helplessness that may worsen depression.
- Make individuals less active. Lack of physical activity can make someone struggling with low self-esteem and/or body issues feel even worse about themselves.
- Make individuals feel ashamed about their inability to control their alcohol consumption. Those feelings of helplessness and worthlessness can cause individuals to drink more, triggering a never-ending cycle that can lead to addiction and even more mental health challenges.
Live The Sober Life You Deserve
Here at Soba Recovery, we believe that everyone deserves to live an addiction-free and emotionally healthy life. Drinking more won’t help you accomplish that goal, but our comprehensive recovery programs can. Let us help you live the life of freedom you want and deserve. Invest in your future by contacting us today to learn more.