Is There A Causal Link Between Heavy Consumption of Alcohol and Depression?

Does Alcohol Addiction Make You Depressed?

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When confronted with everyday stress and challenges, people often resort to alcohol consumption as a way to self-medicate. Even though occasionally consuming a drink or two will not have many long-term effects on a person, prolonged and heavy alcohol consumption carries significant risks. One of the most worrying consequences of excessive drinking concerns the development of some kind of depressive disorder. Feelings of prolonged sadness, hopelessness, and loneliness that characterize depression can have further negative effects on one’s health, potentially even shortening one’s lifespan. In such cases, prompt treatment is needed to improve one’s situation and prevent further decline.1

What is Depression?

Depression is commonly defined as a mood disorder that consists of persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest in commonly pursued activities. People suffering from depression usually have accompanying problems. Besides the emotional problems, particularly present are various physical issues. Oftentimes, depression sufferers develop difficulties with eating and sleeping, which may put their physical health at further risk. It is believed that depression makes people substantially more likely to commit suicide.2,3,4

What are the Types of Depression?

Types of depression people develop may differ in a variety of aspects, most particularly in intensity. While some people may suffer from a relatively mild and more easily treatable form of this mood disorder, others may be confronted with severe forms that require long-term treatment and are usually coupled with other mental ailments.3,5

One of the less severe types of depression is seasonal affective disorder. This ailment usually starts somewhere between late fall and early winter and lasts up to spring or even summer in some cases. The manifestation of this disorder is highly correlated with the level of sunlight and typically does not require extensive treatment to be adequately addressed.3,5

Next comes major depression. Patients qualify for this kind of disorder if they experience persistent symptoms of depression for a duration of at least two weeks. During this period, major depression sufferers commonly feel unable to normally perform their everyday duties and activities.3,5

One level more serious is persistent depressive disorder. Typically called dysthymia, this form of depression is diagnosed if a patient is present with mild depression symptoms for at least two years. Even though it is usually much more bearable than major depression, the fact that it lasts so long, often during one’s entire life, makes it particularly worrying.3,5

Some people are even diagnosed with perinatal depression. This condition refers to a set of depression symptoms women experience while they are pregnant or after they give birth to their children.3

Finally, there is a troublesome condition called psychotic depression. In addition to gut-wrenching depression symptoms, people with this form of the disease also experience symptoms of psychosis. These are commonly present in the form of delusions (where people firmly hold false beliefs) or hallucinations (which are false perceptions of objects in one’s environment).3,5

Does Drinking Too Much Alcohol Cause Depression?

Excessive alcohol consumption has been identified by many studies as one of the important drivers of depression. This finding may seem particularly paradoxical given that depression may cause alcoholism as many people consume alcohol in the hope of relieving their symptoms of depression. Yet, even though alcohol may temporarily relieve sadness or hopelessness, people may start feeling bad again once the effects of alcohol subside.6.7

What is more, heavy alcohol consumption may cause depression in people who previously did not have symptoms of depression or exacerbate unpleasant symptoms in people who tried to curb depression with alcohol. The way alcohol produces such an undesirable effect has to do with the way it affects brain chemistry. More particularly, it alters the function of dopamine, serotonin, and GABA neurotransmitters, also changing the way these regulate one’s mood and emotions.8

It is also believed that alcohol can lead to depression by activating certain depression-related genes, eventually bringing about symptoms such as seizures and manic depressive episodes. Alcohol can also bring down folic acid levels in one’s body, which can contribute to the development of depression. Folic acid deficiency also increases one’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Finally, frequent consumption of alcohol and depression can jointly disturb normal sleeping patterns.9

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Depression?

Identifying relevant signs and symptoms presents a crucial part of depression diagnosis. These symptoms are present in the majority of cases of depression, although at different prevalences and intensities. For a person to be diagnosed with depressive disorder, some of the following symptoms need to be present for at least two weeks:3,10,11

  • Continuous low mood, emotions of sadness, and/or feelings of emptiness
  • Feelings of pessimism or hopelessness
  • Irritability, restlessness, or frustration
  • Intense feelings of guilt, helplessness, or worthlessness
  • Losing motivation in performing activities once enjoyed
  • Fatigue and decrease in energy
  • Issues with thinking, making decisions, or remembering things
  • Disruption of sleeping patterns. These can manifest as either insomnia (problems with falling asleep) or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping)
  • Appetite changes that may result in significant weight gain or weight loss
  • Frequent thoughts about harming or killing oneself, as well as about death in general
  • Physical symptoms that involve digestive issues, headache, and various sorts of pains or aches

People who notice these symptoms in themselves or their loved ones are advised to get a consultation with their physician. The co-occurrence of frequent use of alcohol and depression should not be neglected. Medical experts will be best prepared to provide adequate advice and see if further inspection is necessary.1

What are the Factors that Increase the Risks of Depression Due to Alcohol Abuse?

A number of risk factors can make a person more likely to suffer from alcohol-induced depression. Even though the presence of these risk factors does not guarantee one will have depression, their presence still warrants special attention:3,10,

  • Genetics. Depression tendencies can spread inside families via genetic mechanisms. Even though having first-degree relatives suffering from some sort of depressive disorder does not necessitate that someone will develop depression, it makes such an outcome two to four times more likely compared to the general population.
  • Biological causes (e.g. certain illnesses). People who suffer from certain physical diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, are more likely to develop depression as a consequence of the stress they experience in everyday life. Another biological risk factor for depression can reside in certain brain chemistry makeup.
  • Exposure to emotionally impactful events. Experiencing major life changes (e.g. going to a new school or job) and being exposed to stressful and traumatic events can significantly influence depression. The effect is particularly strong if such events are experienced at an early age.
  • Certain medications. People may get more susceptible to depression if they regularly take certain medications. Good examples are isotretinoins, benzodiazepines, beta-adrenergic blockers, and statins.
  • Low socioeconomic status. Being poor or having few life opportunities, especially in childhood, may put a lot of stress on a person, making them more likely to suffer from depression.

Frequent alcohol and/or drug consumption is usually added to this list. Anyone who possesses any of these risk factors should pay close attention to whether they also experience any of the depression signs or symptoms. If any warning signs are present, medical attention should be sought.1

How to Diagnose Depression Due to Alcohol Addiction?

A diagnostic procedure is normally the same regardless of whether patients develop depression as a result of heavy alcohol use or some other factor. As with other health issues, the diagnosis usually starts with a physical exam. By paying close attention to a person’s neurological and endocrine system, doctors will try to determine if there are visible signs that are indicative of depression. The physical exam is often followed by lab blood tests and more complex procedures such as MRI or CT scan and electroencephalogram (EEG), all of which examine a patient’s neural activity. Lab blood tests can also determine if patients have alcohol in their blood, which can suggest a causal link between alcohol and depression.16

The next step in depression diagnosis involves psychological screening. This crucial test commonly involves a series of questions aimed at investigating the state of a patient’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior over the course of the last several weeks. Some of the most commonly used depression screening tests are:16

  • Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale
  • The Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9)
  • Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HRSD)
  • Beck Depression Inventory (BDI)

These screening instruments can help in determining both the presence and severity of depression. The questions some of them include can also point to alcohol-related issues, thus helping in establishing a correlation between alcohol and depression.16

How to Treat Depression Caused by Alcoholism?

Co-occurrence of depression and alcohol should be carefully addressed and treated. Medical specialists will determine which of the available treatment modalities will be the most adequate for any particular patient, taking into account their personal needs and circumstances. What is usually prescribed is some of the following treatments or their combination:17,18,19

  • Medications. Since short detox treatment is often not sufficient, many patients are prescribed a medication regimen that they should follow for some time in the future. Patients are commonly prescribed antidepressants along with medications that discourage drinking (e.g., naltrexone).
  • Behavioral therapy. Usually viewed as a crucial part of treatment, behavioral therapy commonly involves a series of sessions where the specialist and patient will talk about the patient’s psychological challenges. A range of therapy approaches can be applied. Some of the more common ones are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and behavioral activation.

Prospective patients who are unsure whether they need any of these treatment types are advised to contact American Addiction Centers by calling our fully anonymous 24/7 helpline. Our navigators are more than ready to answer questions about a wide variety of issues, ranging from treatment costs to information on stages of alcoholism and even how different types of alcoholics can be categorized.

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