Effects of Alcohol on Mental Health

Effects of Alcohol on Mental Health

Written by Elise Calavetta- Co-owner, High Vibes Drinks.

 

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life” – Virginia Woolf

For Mental Health awareness month, I think it is important to explore the relationship between alcohol and mental health. I am a massive advocate for positive mental health, not only have I done research into this topic, but I am someone who has lived experience with mental health (and continue to do so).

 Did you know that over 500,000 Australians will experience depression and substance abuse at the same time, at some point in their life. [1]

Some people may drink alcohol to relax or to help cope with daily stresses and emotions. Many people use it as a common coping strategy when faced with mental unwellness. It has been estimated that 30 – 50% of people with an alcohol (and/or other drug issues) also have a mental health condition.[2]

However, it is important to remember that alcohol is not an effective coping solution. Alcohol is classified as a depressant drug that is known to cause anxiety and increase stress.[3] Alcohol can negatively affect thoughts, feelings, and actions, and contribute to the development of, or worsen, existing mental health issues over time.

 

Alcohol and the brain

To understand how alcohol affects our mental wellness we need to explore how alcohol disrupts the delicate balance of chemicals in our brain. Alcohol has been proven to;

  • Deregulate the brains dopamine levels (happiness feeling).[4] Your brain can only produce a certain amount of dopamine, so the increase in dopamine you experience when drinking is actually depleting your brains reserves that you need for later use. This is why the days following drinking you might experience increased feeling of sadness, as the brain attempts to restore balance.
  • Slows down the central nervous system[5]. The central nervous system controls your thoughts and how your brain talks to your body, thus affecting the way you think, feel, and behave.
  • Sedates /slows the brains neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit signals between the brain cells)[6]. Alcohol has been proven to, slow / slur speech, dimmish reaction time and slow your physical movements.
  • Your natural ability to reason, think critically and regulate your emotions is diminished.[7] You might experience crying episodes or fits of rage with no real obvious trigger.
  • Limits the brains ability to consolidate memory. Alcohol can temporarily block the transfer of memories from short-term to long-term storage[8].

 

Alcohol and mental wellness

Our mental health is affected by many factors, including alcohol[9]. So, while it might seem like a glass of wine or a beer after a stressful or difficult day helps you to relax, alcohol actually depletes the chemicals in your brain that naturally help you cope. As a result, you can be left feeling even more stressed, anxious, or depressed, and then feel the need for more alcohol to help you cope with these overwhelming feelings. It can be a never ending, self-perpetuating and very dangerous cycle.

Quality sleep is critical to positive mental health and wellbeing,[10] despite this, many people report using alcohol to help them sleep[11]. While alcohol may help induce sleep, you are likely to experience more sleep disturbances during the night, which means your body never gets the deep restorative sleep it needs to be mentally well. 

  

The relationship between alcohol and mental health

Alcohol consumption can play a role in the development and progression of mental health conditions. The relationship between alcohol use and mental health conditions goes both ways and is a vicious cycle.

Mental health disorders increase the likelihood of alcohol dependence - People with anxiety and depressive disorders are four times more likely to experience alcohol dependence, (compared to people who do not experience those disorders) [12].
Alcohol increases the risk of depression - For an individual who experiences alcohol dependence, the risk of depression doubles [13].

 

Self-medicating increases likelihood of dependence

Researchers have found that people who reported self-medicating their mood by drinking alcohol have a greater likelihood of developing alcohol dependence [14]. That’s pretty scary stuff considering most of us do this to some degree, we only have to look back at the recent lockdowns to see how many of us used alcohol to cope.

 Alcohol increases suicidal behaviour

Another troubling statistic is that someone who experiences both a mental health condition and alcohol dependence is at a greater risk of suicidal behaviour. Researchers have found that someone has approximately seven times increased risk for a suicide attempt soon after drinking alcohol, and this risk further increases to 37 times after heavy use of alcohol[15].

 Post alcohol ‘hangxiety’

It is also common for you to feel increased anxiety following alcohol consumption. This is now commonly referred to as ‘hangxiety’ and occurs during the hangover period. Alcohol stimulates the production of GABA, a chemical that helps calm down the brain. After a few drinks, the brain also starts to increase glutamate, a receptor which helps further increase feelings of calmness[16]. The combination of these chemicals and receptors can briefly decrease anxiety and worry, however, once this has worn off the next day you can experience increased levels of worry, agitation, and anxiety.[17]

 Alcohol reduces the effectiveness of medications

In addition to all the other negative effects, alcohol, even when consumed at low levels (one or two drinks a day), can interact negatively with most of the common medications commonly prescribed for mental health conditions, including antidepressants[18]. The National Health and Medical Research Council recommend that for anyone who is under treatment for a mental health condition, to discuss their alcohol use with a health care professional[19]..

  

The final word on alcohol and mental health

There is very little evidence available to allow advice about safe levels of alcohol consumption in people with depression or anxiety. For someone with depression, several standard drinks may have different and more severe effects on them than on someone without depression.

While alcohol can start out as a simple coping tool after a stressful day, as you have just read, there is a clear relationship between mental health disorders and alcohol consumption, it is a two-way relationship and one that can be deadly.  

One of my personal reasons for removing alcohol from my life is the extreme anxiety I feel in the days following drinking. Alcohol reduces the effectiveness of my anti-anxiety medication and leaves me a panicked mess for days.  

I hope you found this information useful. Love Elise x

 

 

If this blog has raised any issues for you, or you would like some support please reach out to Beyond Blue Get mental health support - Beyond Blue

 

 

For more information
The following are a list of resources that we used to write this article, that you may wish to explore: 

 

[1] Beyond Blue  https://www.beyondblue.org.au/who-does-it-affect/men/what-causes-anxiety-and-depression-in-men/alcohol-and-drug-use

[2] Western Australian Mental Health Commission. (2015). Better Choices. Better Lives. Western Australian Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drug Services Plan 2015-2025. Perth, WA: Mental Health Commission.

[3]National Health and Medical Research Council. (2020). Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4120286/

[5] National Health and Medical Research Council. (2009). Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia

[6] Polk, Thad A., The Addictive Brain, The Great Courses, 2015.

[7] Grace, A., This Naked Mind. 2018

[8] Vale, J., Kick the Drink…Easily! 1999

[9] World Health Organization. (2012). Risks to mental health: an overview of vulnerabilities and risk factors. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/mental_health/mhgap/risks_to_mental_health_EN_27_08_12.pdf

[10] Mental Health Foundation. (2011). Sleep matters. The impact of sleep on health and wellbeing. Retrieved from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/sleep-report

[11] Mental Health Foundation. (2006). Cheers? Understanding the relationship between alcohol and mental health. Retrieved from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/cheers-understanding-relationship-between-alcohol-and-mental-health

[12] Boschloo, L., Vogelzangs, N., Smit, J., can den Brink, W., Veltman, D., Beekman, A., Penninx, B. (2011). Comorbidity and risk indicators for alcohol use disorders among persons with anxiety and/or depressive disorders. Findings from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA). Journal of Affective Disorders, 131, 233-242.

[13] World Health Organization. (2018). Global status report on alcohol and health 2018. Retrieved from: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/274603/9789241565639-eng.pdf

[14] Turner, S., Mota, N., Bolton, J., & Sareen, J. (2018). Self-medication with alcohol or drugs for mood and anxiety disorders: A narrative review of the epidemiological literature. Depression and Anxiety, 35, 851-860.

[15] World Health Organization. (2018). Global status report on alcohol and health 2018. Retrieved from: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/274603/9789241565639-eng.pdf

[16] https://www.thinkmentalhealthwa.com.au/about-mental-health-wellbeing/the-relationship-between-mental-health-alcohol-and-illicit-drugs/

[17] Jane‐Llopis, E. V. A., & Matytsina, I. (2006). Mental health and alcohol, drugs and tobacco: a review of the comorbidity between mental disorders and the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs. Drug and alcohol review, 25(6), 515-536.

[18] National Health and Medical Research Council. (2020). Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra

[19] National Health and Medical Research Council. (2020). Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra

 

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