Alcohol plays a casual role in over 200 medical conditions including numerous cancers, high blood pressure, cirrhosis and depression (1). Over the years, a substantial amount of literature has pointed to a link between alcohol and depression citing that these brain disorders frequently occur together and are associated with worse symptoms and outcomes. One study found that people in treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) were 3.7 times more likely to also have major depressive disorder (2).
But there’s still some debate over what comes first. Is alcohol dependence a precursor for depression or vice versa? Both conditions do share similar physiological pathways as well as some behavioural, genetic and environmental risk factors. In this article, the experts at Delamere wellness retreat explore the link between alcohol and depression including how to understand your condition and access the most appropriate treatment. If you are struggling with alcohol addiction as a result of depression or your mood disorder is driving you to drink, we are here to answer your concerns.
Even though the terms are often used interchangeably there is a distinction between alcoholism and an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). While you might recognise someone has a drinking problem, an AUD is a medical diagnosis that identifies the presence of a mental health disorder. This causes a pattern of substance use which is detrimental to mental and physical health.
There are three types of depressive disorders that have been predominantly studied in people with Alcohol Use Disorders: major depressive disorder, dysthymia (persistent chronic depression) and substance-induced depressive disorder (a short-lived condition usually associated with withdrawal symptoms). Major depressive disorder is the most common problem associated with alcohol abuse. Main symptoms include low mood, lack of interest or pleasure in activities, loss of appetite, insomnia, poor decision-making and, in the worst cases, suicidal thoughts.
The main reason for depression occurring as a result of continuous heavy drinking is the effect of alcohol on the brain. Alcohol is a Central Nervous System depressant which alters your brain chemistry. This can cause you to feel especially low when you stop drinking. How susceptible you are to developing depression with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) depends on several factors, including age of onset, gender and ethnicity (2).
Depression is characterised by a prolonged feeling of sadness or helplessness that lasts for weeks or months and impacts everyday life. Often, people are diagnosed with recognised mental health disorders following a traumatic experience, such as child abuse, a life-changing accident or being involved in military combat. Drinking alcohol to excess can help to numb distressing memories and physical pain but in the long-term this can actually draw out symptoms, making it harder to quit.
Some people drink alcohol to excess to escape a low mood, but this can actually make their symptoms worse. Alcohol helps us to feel relaxed and forget our troubles but the chemical imbalance it causes in our brains wreaks havoc when we stop drinking. Anxiety and depression are common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, causing people to turn back to heavy drinking to overcome negative thoughts and emotions.
Around 1 in 4 people worldwide will suffer from a mental health condition during their lifetime, and over 107 million people are estimated to have an Alcohol Use Disorder. These two prevalent conditions are linked by the fact the majority of people don’t receive treatment for them and by certain other common factors.
Genetics, alcohol and depression
Firstly, alcoholism and depression are both considered genetic. While neither are predetermined at birth, a family history of alcohol abuse or mental health disorders makes you more likely to suffer with them yourself. Around 50% of Alcohol Use Disorders are attributed to genetics and there is 2 to 4 times the risk of developing major depressive disorder if a direct family member also suffers (3).
Environmental factors, alcohol and depression
The propensity to develop a dependence on alcohol and to have concurrent mental health problems are both affected by environmental factors such as home life, people pressures and life stress. Negative childhood experiences, difficult relationships and work burnout are often cited as key reasons for someone developing depression and/or problems with alcohol.
Gender, alcohol and depression
Another interesting link is that women are more likely to be affected by both an Alcohol Use Disorder and depressive disorder. Studies show that women are almost twice as likely to develop major depressive disorder in their lifetime than men and that young women were more likely to experience depression before developing an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) (2).
Regardless of which condition came first, it’s important that alcohol addiction and depression are treated concurrently in a residential rehab facility. Typically treatment will start by addressing any physical symptoms with an alcohol detox as well as any nutritional needs and underlying medical conditions. This usually involves pharmacological support, such as prescribing Naltrexone, to overcome unwanted side effects.
Following safe withdrawal, the most common treatment for alcohol and depression is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) delivered by a trained counsellor. CBT involves delving into the reasons behind your alcohol dependence and depression, exploring your thoughts and how they influence your behaviour. Your therapist will encourage you to talk openly about your feelings and develop strategies to cope when things get tough.
Group therapy can also be beneficial as part of your recovery as speaking with people who have had similar life experiences or are facing the same challenges can really help. It’s good to realise you are not alone and can get through the worst of your problems with a strong support network of family and friends.
If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol and depression, it’s time you reached out for help. Our holistic therapists are here to listen and support you at our purpose-built luxury wellness retreat beside Delamere forest in Cheshire. People come to us with coexisting mental health problems and alcohol disorders because are experts in both and many of our staff have first-hand experience of overcoming them.
Our residential rehab programmes begin with a clinical alcohol detox in safe and comfortable surroundings delivered by a dedicated team of healthcare professionals. You are assigned a focal therapist who will begin one-to-one sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to begin the healing process. We are firm believers in individualised treatments and will work with you to find the best approach.
This could include meditation or breath work, music, art or equine therapy. We want your experience to be fully immersive, leaving you with lifelong learnings and tools to ensure lasting recovery. Every guest who leaves our care receives 12 months of support where you can continue to connect with our therapists and friends you made during treatment. Our aim is to help you stop cravings for alcohol, start healing from past trauma and grow beyond addiction.
If you think you are suffering with alcohol addiction and depression, call us confidentially to speak to a member of the team today. Contact Delamere
1. Burton, R. et al. (2016). The Public Health Burden of Alcohol and the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Alcohol Control Policies: An Evidence Review.
2. McHugh RK, Weiss RD. Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorders. Alcohol Res. 2019 Jan 1;40(1):arcr.v40.1.01. doi: 10.35946/arcr.v40.1.01. PMID: 31649834; PMCID: PMC6799954.
Alex is the Admissions Manager at Delamere. Alex has organised more admissions into treatment than most. Find out more about Alex on our team page.
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