Depression and alcohol use are not a good combination. Both cause changes in the brain, and both can make the other condition worse.
Depression and the Alcohol Use Connection
Suffering from depression and its accompanying feelings of sadness, loneliness, restlessness and the like is often a reason a person elects to drink in the first place. Alcohol triggers the brain’s dopamine reliant pleasure/reward pathways, which are the pathways that facilitate a person’s ability to experience joy, happiness, pleasure. Unfortunately, alcohol is also a depressant. Thus the alcohol can exacerbate the symptoms a person feels as a consequence of their depression. Not only that, but mental illness, such as depression, is one of the key risk factors for developing an addiction and the road to addiction (alcoholism) is a progression, moving from alcohol use to abuse to dependence (an addiction to alcohol). [To understand the progression, check out this link, "Alcoholism is a Disease and It's Not Alcohol Abuse."]
As with the stigma and shame that surrounds drinking too much and not being able to control or cut back on one’s drinking, depression carries a huge amount of stigma and shame, as well. Often, friends and family will chide a loved one who seems depressed to get up, get going, get out, do something. Often friends and family will chide a loved one who drinks too much to stop, to cut back, to only drink on holidays, to get it under control. Clinical depression, alcohol abuse and alcoholism all cause brain changes – they actually change the way the brain works. For this reason, it’s impossible for the person experiencing either or both to “Just Do It!” until they “fix” their brain – in other words, treat their depression, truly change their drinking patterns to fall within low-risk limits and/or treat their alcoholism. In all three cases – the earlier treatment (change) is begun, the better.
For these reasons, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the facts about depression from the National Institutes of Mental Health, because the combination of untreated depression and drinking can result in a dual diagnosis – having two brain diseases | disorders at the same time.
NIMH Signs and Symptoms, Causes, and Diagnosis and Treatments of Depression
Signs and Symptoms
People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- Overeating, or appetite loss
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
Most likely, depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.Depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain. Longstanding theories about depression suggest that important neurotransmitters—chemicals that brain cells use to communicate—are out of balance in depression. But it has been difficult to prove this.
Brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shown that the brains of people who have depression look different than those of people without depression. The parts of the brain involved in mood, thinking, sleep, appetite, and behavior appear different. But these images do not reveal why the depression has occurred. They also cannot be used to diagnose depression.
Some types of depression tend to run in families. However, depression can occur in people without family histories of depression too.9 Scientists are studying certain genes that may make some people more prone to depression. Some genetics research indicates that risk for depression results from the influence of several genes acting together with environmental or other factors.10 In addition, trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation may trigger a depressive episode. Other depressive episodes may occur with or without an obvious trigger.
Diagnosis and Treatments
Depression, even the most severe cases, can be effectively treated. The earlier that treatment can begin, the more effective it is.
The first step to getting appropriate treatment is to visit a doctor or mental health specialist. Certain medications, and some medical conditions such as viruses or a thyroid disorder, can cause the same symptoms as depression. A doctor can rule out these possibilities by doing a physical exam, interview, and lab tests. If the doctor can find no medical condition that may be causing the depression, the next step is a psychological evaluation.
The doctor may refer you to a mental health professional, who should discuss with you any family history of depression or other mental disorder, and get a complete history of your symptoms. You should discuss when your symptoms started, how long they have lasted, how severe they are, and whether they have occurred before and if so, how they were treated. The mental health professional may also ask if you are using alcohol or drugs, and if you are thinking about death or suicide.
Once diagnosed, a person with depression can be treated in several ways. The most common treatments are medication and psychotherapy. Click here to read the rest, starting with Medication…