Does Alcohol Make Depression Worse?

Medically reviewed by Mark Hrymoc, MD

Yes, alcohol can exacerbate depression. While it may initially provide temporary relief or euphoria, over time it can aggravate depressive symptoms, increase anxiety, and disrupt sleep. Furthermore, it can also interact negatively with medications used to treat depression, reducing their effectiveness.

Major depressive disorders are the most common co-occurring conditions with alcohol use disorders (AUD). Research shows that people who struggle with alcohol use disorder are three times more likely to have depression. Also, women are more likely to develop co-occurring AUD and depression. 

Although there is a link between the two, it is not always clear whether alcohol makes depression worse. To determine the answer, it’s important to understand depression and alcohol separately and examine how one affects the other.

What is Depression?

To be diagnosed with depression, a person must experience symptoms, like the ones below, for at least two weeks and a large part of each day.

  • Sadness or low mood
  • Hopelessness or pessimism
  • Irritability or easily agitated
  • Guilt, worthlessness, or shame
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyable
  • Excessive fatigue for no apparent reason
  • Oversleeping or lack of sleep
  • Unplanned weight and appetite changes
  • Unexplained physical ailments
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

Depression can be situational, like when you experience a loss. In such cases, depression tends to ease over several weeks, and you can return to living productively. When depression persists and begins interfering with your daily functioning, it may be a depressive disorder.

What Causes Depression?

Every person with depression can have a different reason as to why they have it. Depression develops when someone has risk factors associated with the disorder. Some risk factors are entirely out of your control like the genetics passed down to you by your ancestors. Simply having the depression gene does not mean you will have depression, however. When other risk factors accompany your genetics, it makes it more likely to have depression.

Examples of other risk factors include the following:

  • Changes in the way neurotransmitters in the brain communicate
  • Past traumatic experiences 
  • Current living environment 
  • Personal or professional conflicts
  • Major life changes
  • Other physical or psychological illnesses
  • Some medications
  • Lack of a support network
  • Chronic stress
  • Substance abuse

A person with depression often has an imbalance of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA. The brain fails to release the neurotransmitters needed to boost mood naturally. This can become a significant problem for a person who also misuses alcohol.

What is Alcohol?

Alcohol is ethanol created from the fermentation of sugars, grains, yeast, fruits, and vegetables. Because anything containing ethanol can alter the mind, it is considered a drug or substance of misuse. In addition, alcohol is a depressant.

How Alcohol Affects the Body

Alcohol intoxication occurs in stages, tricking you in the first stage by making you feel confident, relaxed, happy, and friendly. When you first consume alcohol, it takes about five minutes to enter your bloodstream and the brain and start feeling its effects. In the first stage, alcohol triggers a dopamine release in the brain’s reward center, making you feel good. This stage is called euphoria.

If you stop drinking after a few drinks, the liver will process it out of your body, and you will be sober again. If you continue drinking, however, you will experience stages of intoxication in which brain activity becomes slower. Stages of alcohol intoxication include excitement, confusion, stupor, coma, and death.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that interferes with brain function. When it slows communication between neurotransmitters, everything you do is impacted, such as the following:

  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Lack of coordination
  • Memory lapses
  • Inability to make decisions

The Alcohol-Depression Connection

In the first stage of intoxication, alcohol seems to boost the brain chemicals associated with depression. Dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are released, making you think alcohol is the answer to your depression.

Continued drinking has the opposite effect. The alcohol begins to suppress the release of “feel-good chemicals” in the brain. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine, and dopamine slow down and cannot send messages to the rest of the body.

A person with depression already has a problem with malfunctioning neurotransmitters. Adding alcohol only intensifies the brain’s inability to boost your mood.

Furthermore, drinking alcohol indirectly worsens depression in the following ways:

Alcohol Misuse Causes Sleep Disturbances

Sleep is an essential element of good mental and physical health. During sleep, your brain sends messages to your body for restoration and healing. Alcohol interferes with sleep, preventing you from getting good sleep. Alcohol can cause restlessness, nightmares, dehydration, and physical symptoms, making sleeping difficult. Lack of quality sleep has been shown to cause irritability and depression.

Alcohol Misuse Leads to Relationship Problems

Drinking too much or too often can lead to personal and professional relationship problems. For some, alcohol leads to arguments that can escalate into abuse, infidelity, poor financial decisions, or legal consequences. Alcohol misuse can cause you to be late or absent from work, eventually costing you a job. Losing relationships increases your likelihood of depression.

Alcohol Misuse Leads to Accidents and Injuries

Over 52 million emergency department visits are due to alcohol. Due to poor coordination and decision-making, people often get themselves into dangerous situations. Not everyone survives. Over 141,000 people die from alcohol misuse annually, with 385 daily deaths from excessive drinking.

Physical health and mental health influence one another. Injuries to the body lead to depression because they prevent you from participating in social activities, making money, and having fun. The pain of an injury is depressing, also.

When someone misusing alcohol injures or kills another person while intoxicated, the effects are devastating.

Alcohol Misuse and Medications

If you misuse alcohol while taking antidepressants for depression, anxiety, or another mental illness, your depression may worsen. Alcohol reduces the positive effects of antidepressant medication, which means you may be experiencing worsening depression. Alcohol may also increase the side effects of antidepressant medication, worsening your symptoms. 


Does alcohol make depression worse? Yes, it does, indirectly and directly. There are ways to avoid this, starting with getting help from a mental health center with psychiatrists and professionals trained in treating dual-diagnosis disorders. They understand that you must treat an alcohol use disorder and depression simultaneously for recovery. Reach out for help today.