Is Alcohol a Depressant?

Many people use alcohol to enhance their mood. But alcohol is a depressant that can actually negatively affect their state of mind. Over time, heavy or regular drinking can lead to depression. People simultaneously dealing with alcoholism and depression must treat both disorders to improve their health.
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Alcohol addiction is closely related to depression. In fact, the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, found that people with an alcohol use disorder were 3.7 times more likely than those without alcoholism to experience a major depressive disorder.

“It’s associated with depression,” Dr. Kenneth Leonard, director of the Research Institute on Addictions, told “There continues to be sort of a bidirectional effect where it can increase depression. When people stop drinking, sometimes some of that depression is alleviated.”

Many people struggling with depression self-medicate with alcohol to numb their feelings, which can actually worsen their symptoms of depression. Furthermore, in some cases alcoholism can cause depression. Having either of these disorders — alcoholism or depression — increases the risk of developing the other.

Alcohol and Depression

Alcohol is a depressant. It can slow vital functions, leading to slurred speech, slowed reaction time and impaired memory. While some people may drink to relax, the effects of alcohol can actually include increased anxiety and stress.

The more a person drinks, the greater the risk for an emotional response such as anger, aggression or depression. Research has shown that alcohol abuse or dependence is closely associated with major depression, which occurs when someone experiences persistent and intense feelings of sadness.

Warning signs that alcohol is contributing to depression:

  • Experiencing anxiety when you would typically feel comfortable
  • Having trouble sleeping after alcohol use
  • Feeling tired because of a hangover
  • Feeling general unhappiness

“You don’t always know what the direction of causality is,” Leonard said. “So we don’t know if the heavy drinking is bringing these features out or whether these features are associated with risk taking and heavy drinking. We don’t know if there’s some underlying connected risk to both of those. But there is comorbidity with a lot of psychiatric disorders.”

Heavy drinking can affect a person’s relationships, work productivity and school performance, which can lead to depression. Alcohol abuse can also lead to financial problems and homelessness — factors that contribute to depression.

How Depression Leads to Alcohol Abuse

Depression affects all aspects of life. Individuals battling this mental health disorder often experience angry outbursts, anxiety and feelings of worthlessness. They may also lose interest in normal activities or isolate themselves from loved ones.

In an attempt to alleviate depressive symptoms, many people engage in drinking. But misusing alcohol affects the brain and worsens depression. Drinking reduces the levels of serotonin in your brain, influencing mood and causing depressed feelings. This can lead to continued alcohol use.

“When someone struggles to understand and communicate their emotional needs they may turn to substances to numb them. Over time this will eventually lead to a substance dependence.”

Richard Molina, Head Therapist, The Recovery Village

People who are depressed and engage in heavy drinking further aggravate their existing life problems. And drinking may introduce additional alcohol-related diseases and disorders, including respiratory problems, chronic liver damage or addiction.

Instead of using alcohol, people can engage in a number of activities, including running, yoga and playing sports, to help reduce symptoms of depression. But completing rehab is the most effective way to treat depression.

Treating Alcoholism and Depression

According to the journal, Current Psychiatry Reports, it is important for people struggling with alcohol addiction and depression to address both disorders. Failing to treat one disease can prolong health problems. For example, treating alcoholism while ignoring depressive symptoms can worsen depression and result in continued drinking.

Simultaneously treating co-occurring disorders can improve a person’s overall health. Alcohol rehab centers often complement psychosocial therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, with medications to treat co-occurring disorders.

Using medications that target alcohol problems and depression can expedite treatment. Food and Drug Administration-approved medications for alcoholism include disulfiram, naltrexone and acamprosate. Doctors use antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors to treat depression.

Participating in 12-step programs can improve treatment outcomes and help people stay sober during recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous, the most popular support-group program in the world, allows people struggling with or in recovery from alcoholism to communicate with individuals in similar situations.

Matt Gonzales
Content Writer,
Matt Gonzales is a writer and researcher for He graduated with a degree in journalism from East Carolina University and began his professional writing career in 2011. Matt covers the latest drug trends and shares inspirational stories of people who have overcome addiction. Certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in health literacy, Matt leverages his experience in addiction research to provide hope to those struggling with substance use disorders.
Kim Borwick, MA
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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