Fact Sheet: 1 Depression and Alcohol
- anyone who feels depressed and thinks they may be drinking too much
- anyone who thinks they may be drinking too much and feels depressed
- Friends, family or colleagues of anyone who is both depressed and drinking.
Alcohol and us
More than 9 out of 10 people drink alcohol. For most of us it is part of our culture and we feel comfortable with it. Moderate drinking doesn't cause many problems. However, over the last 30 years, we have become wealthier and alcohol has become cheaper. We are starting to drink at a younger age and then drinking more. In the Kenya illicit brews are an important cause of death and blindness:
How does alcohol affect us?
Alcohol tastes good to most adults although not, usually, to children (although drinking is starting younger). It can help you to relax, which can make it easier to talk to other people, especially if you are a bit shy. The downside is that it can make you unfit to drive, to operate machinery and affects your ability to make decisions. It also dulls your perception to a greater or less extent, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed.
If you go on drinking, your speech starts to slur, you become unsteady on your feet and may start to say things you may regret the next day.
If you drink even more, most people start to feel sleepy, sick or dizzy. You may pass out. The next day you may be unable to remember what happened while you were drinking.
Becoming dependent on alcohol
Alcohol can be a very effective way of feeling better for a few hours. If you are depressed and lacking in energy, it can be tempting to use alcohol to help you keep going and cope with life. The problem is that it is easy to slip into drinking regularly, using it like a medication. The benefits soon wear off and the drinking becomes part of a routine. You start to notice that:
- instead of choosing to have a drink, you feel you have to have it
- you wake up with shaky hands and a feeling of nervousness
- you start to drink earlier and earlier
- your work starts to suffer
- your drinking starts to affect your relationships
- you carry on drinking in spite of the problems it causes
- you find you have to drink more and more to get the same effect (tolerance)
- you start to ‘binge drink’ (see below) regularly
- Other things have less importance than alcohol.
Alcohol can lead to:
- psychosis - hearing voices when there is nobody there
- dementia - memory loss, rather like Alzheimer's dementia
- Physical - damage organs, such as the liver or brain.
We know that there is a connection – self-harm and suicide are much more common in people with alcohol problems. It seems that it can work in two ways:
- you regularly drink too much including (including ‘binge drinking’) which makes you feel depressed OR
- You drink to relieve anxiety or depression.
- Alcohol affects the chemistry of the brain, increasing the risk of depression.
- Hangovers can create a cycle of waking up feeling ill, anxious, jittery and guilty.
- Life gets depressing – arguments with family or friends, trouble at work, memory and sexual problems.
How much alcohol is too much?
Some drinks are stronger than others. The easiest way to work out how much you are drinking is to count the ‘units’ of alcohol in your drinks. 1 unit is 8 grams /10 ml of pure alcohol - the amount in a standard 25 ml measure of spirits, a half pint of 3.6% beer or lager, or a 100 ml glass of 12% wine (see table below).
If a man and woman of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman will end up with a much higher amount in the organs of her body. So the safe limit is lower for women (14 units per week) than for men (21 units per week).
What about younger people?
Young people drink to have fun, to have the experience of losing control, to socialize more easily with others, to feel sexier – and because their friends do. Around a 30% of 15-16 year olds binge-drink three or more times a month. Alcohol seems to have the same depressant effect in younger people as it does in adults. Around 30% of young suicides have drunk alcohol before their death, and increased drinking may have been to blame for rising rates of teenage male suicide. Suicide and drinking go together in many cases.
What about older people?
As we get older, we tend to lose muscle and to put on fat. Alcohol isn't absorbed by fat, so it ends up in the non-fatty tissues of the body. So, an older person who is the same weight as a younger person will tend to have more alcohol in their vital organs (non-fatty tissues) such as brain, muscles and liver. This means that alcohol will affect an older person more.
The published weekly safe limits assume that you spread your drinking out with at least 2 alcohol-free days per week. This may not be the case – you drink a lot on one night, but still remain within your ‘safe’ limit if you don’t drink for the rest of the week. There is now evidence that even a couple of days of heavy drinking can start to kill off brain cells, as happens with people who drink continuously.
- Drinking over 8 units in a day for men, or 6 units for women is known as binge drinking.
- In any one day it is best for a man to drink no more than 3-4 units and for a woman to drink no more than 2-3 units.
- You regularly use alcohol to cope with anger, frustration, anxiety or depression.
- You regularly use alcohol to feel confident.
- You get hangovers regularly.
- Your drinking affects your relationships with other people.
- Your drinking makes you feel disgusted, angry, or suicidal.
- You hide the amount you drink from friends and family.
- Other people tell you that, when you drink, you become gloomy, embittered or aggressive.
- You need to drink more and more to feel good.
- You stop doing other things to spend more time drinking.
- You start to feel shaky and anxious the morning after drinking the night before.
- You drink to stop these feelings.
- You start drinking earlier in the day.
- People around/with you look embarrassed or uncomfortable.
What if I am drinking too much?
- Set yourself a target to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink.
- Avoid high-risk drinking situations (check out your diary).
- Drink lower-strength, though full-taste, drinks, like 4% beers or 10% wines.
- Work out other things you can do instead of drinking.
- Involve your partner or a friend. They can help to agree a goal and keep track of your progress.
- Talk it over with your doctor. For many people this simple step helps them to cut down their drinking.
- Caution: if you are drinking heavily, do not stop suddenly ... consult your doctor.
- craving, shakiness and restlessness. If this happens, ask your doctor for help.
Helping depression and stopping drinking
We know that most depressed drinkers will start to feel better within a few weeks of cutting out alcohol. So, it is usually best to tackle the alcohol first, and then deal with the depression afterwards if it has not lifted after a few weeks.
After a few alcohol-free weeks, you will probably feel fitter and brighter in your mood. Friends and family may find you easier to get on with. If your feelings of depression do lift, it's likely that they were caused by the drinking.
If the depression is still with you after four weeks of not drinking, talk to your doctor about further help. It may be useful to talk over your feelings, particularly if your depression seems linked to some crisis in your life. Common issues are relationship problems, unemployment, divorce, bereavement or some other loss. Counseling may be helpful.
If the depression does not lift and is particularly severe, your doctor may recommend a talking treatment called ‘cognitive therapy’ or suggest antidepressant medication. In either case, you will need to reduce or stay away from alcohol and go on with the treatment for several months. There are some medications used to reduce the craving for alcohol, but these don’t seem to help many people and are usually prescribed by a specialist.
If you are worried by the idea of stopping or cutting down your drinking, or if you just can’t cut down, it might help to talk with a specialist alcohol worker (See list of specialists).
Treatments for alcohol problems and depression do help, especially if you can regularly see someone you can trust - your own doctor, a counselor or a specialist alcohol worker or a specialist psychiatrist. Changing your habits and style of life is always a challenge and can take some time.
Dos and Don’ts of drinking safely
- Do sip your drink slowly – don’t gulp it down.
- Do space your drinks with a non-alcoholic drink in between.
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Have something to eat first.
- Don’t drink every day. Have two or three alcohol-free days in the week.
- Do switch to lower strength or alcohol free drinks.
- Do (for wine) avoid those ‘large’ 250 ml glasses in bars and restaurants.
- Do provide interesting non-alcoholic drinks as well as alcohol if you are having a party.
- Do ask your doctor or chemist if it is safe to drink alcohol with any medicine that you have been prescribed.
- Do check your drinking every few weeks with your drinking diary.
- Do keep to the drinking target (amount of alcohol per week) you have set yourself.
- Don't binge drink – again, check the diary.
CLMC - Fact Sheet
- Fact Sheet: 1 Depression and Alcohol
- Fact Sheet 2: Teenagers and their parents
- Fact Sheet 3: Other problems of teenagers
- Fact Sheet 4: Tips on helping Teenagers
- Fact Sheet 5: Bipolar Disorder
- Fact Sheet 6: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in adults
- Fact Sheet 7: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Fact Sheet: 8 Depression
- Fact Sheet 9: Postnatal Depression
- Fact Sheet 10 - Schizophrenia