What Causes Depression After Drinking Alcohol?

You’ve likely heard of or experienced the dreaded hangover after a night out drinking. But you may not know that drinking can also leave people feeling depressed.

This overwhelming feeling of sadness, fatigue, or anxiety is more common than you may think. This article covers the link between alcohol and depression, the common signs and symptoms of depression, and how to avoid depression after drinking. 

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How does alcohol affect our brain chemistry?

The relationship between alcohol and the brain has long been investigated by researchers, especially with the increased prevalence of social drinking. Over-consumption of alcohol, also known as alcoholism, has been linked to brain damage resulting in decreased mental function in reasoning and problem-solving abilities.

Mild to moderate alcohol consumption has historically been viewed as harmless and even somewhat beneficial due to the potential benefits it may have for heart health. However, recent research has highlighted negative associations between alcohol use and brain structure, and it was concluded that all levels of alcohol consumption can affect brain volume. 

Alcohol and depression

Depression is a common mental health disorder experienced in individuals of all ages. The causes of depression range from genetic, biological, and environmental factors. Researchers have long been interested in the relationship between alcohol and how it may relate to depression.

It’s unlikely that alcohol consumption on its own results in the development of depression — rather, it is the combination of a few factors. Regardless of this, excessive alcohol consumption (more than the recommended limit, regularly) is likely to increase the risk of depressive episodes. However, current research has only thoroughly looked at the impacts on younger adults. More in-depth research is needed when investigating older adults. 

The term hangover depression refers to feelings of sadness or low mood after drinking alcohol. Unlike typical hangover symptoms, hangover depression is likely to be more intense due to overlapping symptoms with depression, including:

  • Depressed mood

  • Fatigue

  • Difficulty concentrating 

Frequent hangovers and feelings of sadness afterwards have been linked to heavy episodic drinking, including the frequency of passing out from drinking and the frequency of intoxication. 

Prevalence of depression in frequent drinkers

While there is a strong link between heavy alcohol consumption and increased risk of depression, there is still limited research surrounding large groups of study participants across demographics. Most studies have involved investigating specific groups.

A 2012 study looked at depressive symptoms and drinking patterns in first-year college students.¹ These students were in an environment where heavy drinking was often carried out. Researchers found that higher total drinking levels were associated with greater severity of depression. 

A 2021 study looked at a representative sample of adults from South Korea to investigate the relationship between depression and alcohol drinking status.² In females, it was found that moderate and heavy drinkers were at a higher risk of depression compared to light drinkers. However, in males, both heavy and light drinkers were at a higher risk compared to moderate drinkers. 

What are the common causes, signs, and symptoms of depression?

Some common causes of depression include: 

  • Genetic factors

  • Neurodegenerative diseases

  • Traumatic events (for example, the death or loss of a loved one)

  • Lack of or reduced social support

  • Financial problems

  • Interpersonal issues

Looking out for the signs and symptoms of depression involves taking a holistic view of the individual, such as changes in their energy levels and usual routines. Some common signs and symptoms of depression listed in the DSM-5 include: 

  • A reduction in interest or pleasure

  • Changes in energy

  • Fatigue

  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness

  • Disrupted or disturbed sleep patterns 

  • Changes in appetite or weight

  • Thoughts about death or suicide 

Depression after drinking

Alcohol is regarded as a depressant of the central nervous system. This means it can promote changes in various neurological pathways resulting in changes in behavior. 

Depression after drinking can be characterized as alcohol-induced depressive disorder (AUD) that occurs during and after alcohol intoxication. In most cases, AUD should subside after three to four weeks of abstinence from alcohol. If symptoms of AUD don’t subside, it’s worth checking in with your health professional. 

How to avoid depression after drinking

There are several ways to reduce the risk of getting depression after drinking. You can try: 

  • Drinking water before, during, and after drinking alcohol

  • Keeping a regular exercise routine and eating healthily

  • Avoiding drinking when you’re already feeling low 

  • Drink in moderation or avoid binge drinking 

  • Employ a drinking buddy to keep you accountable while drinking 

Managing depression after drinking

Usually, a specialized treatment plan is required for an individual currently experiencing AUD. This should be adjusted based on the evolving needs, with constant evaluation by a health professional. There are numerous treatment options available, and the individual will often undergo a mix of different ones. 

Pharmacotherapies include FDA-approved antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), disulfiram, and naltrexone (oral or injectable).

Psychosocial therapies involve a specialist and patient working together to identify problems and strategize how to overcome them in safe and healthy ways. This allows for the development of strategies to help the individual manage both the AUD and alcohol use. Subcategories of psychosocial therapies include cognitive behavioral therapy, relapse prevention therapy, and motivational enhancement therapy. 

When to get help

While it’s normal to feel low from time to time after drinking, it’s important to reach out and get help if the depressive symptoms after drinking are persistent or significantly impact your overall quality of life. 

Your doctor will likely refer you to a specialist who can recommend a treatment plan to help you manage and overcome depression symptoms after drinking alcohol. They will also be able to pinpoint any underlying issues which may contribute to these symptoms. 

The lowdown

Depression after drinking alcohol can be highly debilitating. Alcohol has been shown to impact our brain volume and overall brain chemistry, so heavy or regular drinking may contribute to feelings of sadness or depression after drinking.

It’s important to understand the causes and symptoms of depression so you can identify it if it arises. Alcohol-induced depression should only be temporary. If you feel it greatly impacts your quality of life, it’s worth seeking help from a health professional. 

People also ask

How long does alcohol-induced depression last?

Feeling down or sad after the alcohol wears off is relatively normal, as they are common symptoms of hangovers. However, alcohol-induced depression can last up to four weeks. If depressive symptoms occur for more than one to two weeks, get in touch with your health professional. 

How can I stop alcohol from making me depressed?

There are several ways to reduce your chance of developing alcohol-induced depression. These include eating a balanced meal before drinking, sipping water throughout, drinking alcohol slowly, and minimizing overall alcohol intake.

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