Is Alcohol a Depressant? Impact on Emotions, Mood, Sleep, and More

  • Alcohol consumption can lead to changes in brain chemistry and the release of brain and body hormones.
  • As a result, you may notice unwanted changes in your emotions and mood, mental health, or sleep.
  • If you’re having trouble quitting or cutting down on alcohol, a psychotherapist can help.
  • Check out the Insider Health Reference Library for more advice.

It’s not uncommon to use alcohol to relieve tension or nerves, or to relieve inhibitions. However, the relaxing effects of alcohol are only temporary.

Long-term, heavy drinking — more than eight drinks per week for women and more than 15 per week for men — can and is linked to negatively impacting your mood and mental health


depression

, anxiety and sleep disorders.

That’s because alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the messages that travel between your body and your brain, says Joseph Volpicelli, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Volpicelli Center’s Addiction Recovery Program.

Here are five ways too much alcohol can affect your long-term mental and emotional well-being.

1. Depression

The more a person drinks, the greater their likelihood of developing depression. In fact, alcohol addiction and depression share many of the same risk factors and symptoms — which makes sense since alcohol is a depressant.

These are a few different ways that alcohol affects the brain and can lead to depressive symptoms:

  1. Serotonin reduction: Alcohol reduces the amount of serotonin produced in your brain. Serotonin is a chemical messenger that plays a key role in mood regulation. So, by disrupting its natural production, alcohol can create an imbalance that can lead to depression, says Nathan Brandon, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice.
  2. Dopamine Suppression: Finally, heavy drinking can lead to reduced production of dopamine, a brain chemical involved in feelings of pleasure and motivation. As a result, you might start feeling sad or down.
  3. Impairment of the norepinephrine system: Alcohol impairs the norepinephrine system, which plays a role in alertness and energy, so you can feel generally listless and lethargic, Brandon says.

2. Fear

Some people drink alcohol to feel more relaxed and to reduce anxiety. However, this can actually make your anxiety worse and lead to alcohol addiction.

It’s true that alcohol can actually help calm feelings of anxiety. But once you stop drinking, that fear will almost certainly return.

A 2019 study found that very shy people had less anxiety when drinking, but their anxiety increased the day after a night of drinking.

Here’s why this might be happening: Alcohol prompts the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger that slows and blocks certain nerve signals in the brain, resulting in a calming effect, says Volpicelli.

However, when you stop drinking, that influx of GABA goes away and your brain becomes flooded with an excess of neurochemical glutamate, which can trigger anxiety, says Volpicelli.

Additionally, drinking alcohol to manage anxiety and depression might actually make those problems worse over time, Brandon says.

For example, if you have an anxiety disorder and find that drinking alcohol triggers one


panic attack

, you could end up drinking more to deal with those feelings of panic and anxiety, thus perpetuating a cycle that is difficult to break and risks alcohol addiction.

3. Sleep problems

A common misconception is that because alcohol is a depressant, it helps you fall asleep. Initially, alcohol can promote feelings of relaxation, which can help you feel drowsy and fall asleep faster.

However, because alcohol is metabolized in your blood throughout the night, it can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle and prevent you from getting adequate REM sleep, says Volpicelli.

Not getting enough REM sleep can negatively impact your emotions, thoughts, and concentration, and even your physical health. It can also make you feel tired or exhausted the next day — which can worsen other alcohol-related problems like depression and anxiety.

“A good night’s sleep is important for everyone, but especially for people struggling with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety,” says Volpicelli. “Poor sleep quality can make existing mental health problems worse.”

4. Difficulty regulating emotions

The prefrontal cortex in your brain plays a crucial role in social behavior, decision making, and emotion regulation. Research suggests that alcohol can disrupt normal activity in the prefrontal cortex, which Brandon says can make it harder to control emotions.

For example, in a small 2015 study of people in an inpatient alcohol treatment program, longer episodes of heavy drinking were associated with more problems detecting and regulating emotions, which then led to more severe depressive symptoms leading to higher rates of alcohol use.

In short, the more frequently and heavier you drink, the more difficult it becomes to regulate your emotions over time.

5. Alcohol use disorder

People living with alcohol use disorder (AUD) typically find it difficult to control their alcohol use or to stop drinking when they try. This mental health condition can lead to ongoing physical and mental health symptoms, along with unwanted consequences at work, school, or in your personal relationships.

It’s common to experience co-occurring mental health disorders, particularly depression and anxiety, along with AUD, Volpicelli says.

According to Volpicelli and Brandon, here are some signs of AUD:

  • Missing work, school, or other commitments because of drinking
  • It takes more and more alcohol to experience the same effects
  • Withdrawal symptoms from not drinking, such as irritability, mood swings, insomnia, headaches, and hand tremors
  • Difficulty cutting down or controlling the amount of alcohol consumed

When a person develops a tolerance to alcohol and has to drink more to feel the effects, their hangover and withdrawal symptoms typically become more severe, Volpicelli says.

Am I drinking too much?

Your drinking habits can cause mental symptoms, Brandon says, if you have any of the following:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • Increased social withdrawal
  • Lack of motivation to pursue your usual activities and hobbies
  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns

To assess how alcohol affects your mood and mental health, Brandon recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I drink alcohol to cope with stress or to avoid difficult feelings?
  • Do I feel like I “need” alcohol to have fun on a night out?
  • Do I feel uncomfortable if I don’t drink?
  • Has alcohol caused problems in my relationships with friends, family, partners or colleagues?

How to stop drinking so much

According to Volpicelli and Brandon, participating in a sober-curious challenge — like Dry January, which takes you off alcohol for the first month of the year — can help you gain insight into your mood, energy, and overall mental health improves when you don’t drink.

Instead of going cold turkey, you can try gradually reducing your alcohol consumption each week until you reach a moderate amount, says Volpicelli: No more than seven drinks a week for women and fourteen drinks a week for men.

When to ask for help

If you’re having trouble stopping or reducing drinking, Volpicelli recommends speaking to your doctor for support from a mental health counselor or alcohol treatment program.

You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), which can refer you to local support groups and organizations.

Signs that it might be time to seek help for mental health or alcohol-related symptoms, according to Brandon:

  • withdrawal from social activities
  • Decreased productivity at work, school, or at home
  • Drink in the morning to deal with a hangover or mental symptoms
  • Experience memory lapses or “blackouts”.
  • Have strong cravings for alcohol
  • A lot of time and money is spent on sourcing and drinking alcohol
  • Intense mood swings after a day of heavy drinking

A therapist or other treatment professional can offer support in identifying and investigating triggers and reasons for drinking and can help you find a treatment approach that is right for you.

Insider snack

Alcohol can have many long- and short-term effects on your mood and mental health. The more often or heavily you drink, the more likely you are to have depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and trouble regulating your emotions.

Drinking more to cope with these symptoms could, in some cases, play a role in developing an alcohol use disorder, which can have an even greater impact on your health, relationships, and overall well-being.

If you suspect that alcohol may contribute to or worsen mood or psychiatric symptoms, consult a therapist, counselor, or other healthcare professional. They can help you develop a customized treatment plan that’s right for you.

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