Can Alcohol Cause Depression and Loneliness?

Can alcohol cause depression and loneliness? While the short answer is yes, the ways alcohol affects an individual’s mental health varies and can be complicated.

Alcohol Affects Mental Health

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. When you consume alcohol, it enters your bloodstream through the digestive system and quickly travels to the brain. As alcohol enters the brain, it changes how your brain functions.

Alcohol crosses the blood-brain barrier very easily and immediately sedates primary functions such as talking, walking, and decision-making. It slows down everything from your thoughts to your movements and reactions.

The more alcohol you consume, the stronger the sedative effects.

How Can Alcohol Cause Depression and Loneliness?

Loneliness is an emotion defined by a craving for social connectedness, for human contact and interactions. Loneliness can often be relieved once you make a human connection. It can be a symptom of a more significant mental health problem, like depression, a disorder involving neurological communications in the brain and body. Depression takes much more to overcome than loneliness, and if someone is misusing alcohol, depression can worsen due to damage to the brain’s structure.

As alcohol enters the brain and impacts the central nervous system, it also changes how neurotransmitters communicate. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers, sending signals via neurons and synapses. In simpler terms, they tell the rest of your body how to feel and impact your mental health directly.

Examples of neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. When the brain functions correctly, neurotransmitters can do their job and experience an overall feeling of well-being. When the neurotransmitters are altered, like when someone misuses alcohol, the benefits become hindrances. Alcohol suppresses the release of these vital neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters, Depression, and Loneliness 

Serotonin is the neurotransmitter most associated with happiness, regulating moods, bone health, wound healing, and the digestive system. The majority of serotonin in the body is found in the intestines. So, what you eat, and drink can make a difference in your mental and physical health. Misusing alcohol causes a drop in serotonin, leading to depression, loneliness, mood swings, etc.

Dopamine produces reward and pleasure when released into the brain and body. Misusing alcohol may cause a surge of dopamine, making you feel happy, energized, and social. These feelings are temporary, however. The more and longer you misuse alcohol, it begins to reverse dopamine release. When dopamine levels drop, you lack motivation, a decrease in pleasure, and dysfunctional motor skills, all of which are symptoms of depression.

Endorphins are the body’s natural pain relievers. They can also boost mood, including happiness and pleasure. Endorphins support many essential body functions, including regulating the immune system, inflammation, and cognition. Light drinking releases endorphins in the brain, making you feel good. Heavy drinking, however, suppresses endorphin release, and your mood will drop, making you feel more depressed and anxious. It can also put you at risk for headaches, pain, and other health conditions.

There are other ways alcohol causes depression and loneliness, more indirect processes that must not be ignored. Below are some examples.

Alcohol Causes Sleep Disturbances

Sleep is a period where the brain restores the body to good health so you can feel refreshed mentally and physically. Alcohol prevents a person from getting restorative sleep. Drinking a little bit of alcohol produces calming and relaxing effects. For some, this helps them fall asleep. But for someone who misuses alcohol, quality sleep is unreachable.

Research shows alcohol leads to higher rates of insomnia, sleep apnea, sleep disruptions, dehydration, and decreased respiration, preventing good oxygen flow.

Alcohol Causes Personal, Professional, and Social Problems

Someone with an alcohol use disorder cannot just quit drinking. When they do, they experience painful withdrawal symptoms. Therefore, they continue to misuse alcohol even if they experience negative consequences.

Alcohol misuse can lead to broken relationships with family and friends, loss of a job, and an inability to fulfill responsibilities at home, work, or socially. Your loved ones feel hurt and devalued. They don’t understand why you choose alcohol over them.

It is problems like this that make you feel guilty, shameful, angry with yourself for not being able to quit drinking, and for some, hopeless. These feelings are associated with depressive disorders, and due to the broken relationships, you may also feel a loneliness that even alcohol cannot fill.

Alcohol Leads to Physical Health Conditions

Many studies show physical and mental health are directly linked. When you feel good physically, you feel good mentally. When you have health-related problems, the aches and pains can make you feel depressed. For example, if you misuse alcohol, you risk developing diabetes, various cancers, cirrhosis, metabolic syndrome, and significant injuries and accidents.

Any one of these presents with physical problems. Being limited by physical issues can make you feel lonely since you can’t participate in activities with your family and friends. Also, your body hurts, and when you feel pain, it is impossible to feel happy and energetic. Pain is exhausting, both physically and mentally.

Alcohol Misuse Puts You In Risky Situations

Your ability to make good, logical decisions is one of the first brain functions to become impaired when you drink alcohol. You are more likely to put yourself in dangerous situations that can harm you or someone else. A few examples are drinking and driving, leaving a party with someone you don’t know, high-risk sexual activity, and mixing drugs with alcohol.

Alcohol misuse can also lead to blackouts, where you function normally, but the memories of your actions cannot be stored. Therefore, you may be taken advantage of or participate in risky activities but won’t recall anything. You may even hurt someone verbally or physically but not remember it. This can increase depression, and if you have a broken relationship, it increases your loneliness.

Alcohol may also lead to suicidal thoughts and interfere with anti-depressant medications. Research shows that for a period after you quit misusing alcohol, depression will continue until your brain is completely healed from the damage caused by alcohol.

Treatment for Alcohol and Depression

There is a silver lining, however. Treatment is available for both alcohol and depression, separately or co-occurring. If you feel depressed, are misusing alcohol, or both, reach out to your local mental health center today.