What You Need to Know About Alcohol and Depression

Depression Often Goes Hand-in-Hand With Alcohol Use

Stressed woman holding alcoholic drink
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Occurrence and Statistics

In the past 15 years, the number of people seeking treatment for depression in the U.S. has doubled; now 25 million a year. That’s bad news, but what is worse is that according to recent research, 90% of these people left their doctor’s offices with a prescription for antidepressants. It is downright frightening that prescription drugs have become the treatment of choice.
{“Hard to Swallow,” WC Douglass e-mail, March 28, 2003}

Americans, 65 and older account for about 13 percent of the population but almost 20% of all suicides. The national rate is 11 suicides for every 100,000 people. This is higher than any other age group, and the attempts are strikingly lethal: one out of four succeed compared to one out of 200 for young adults. The graying baby boomers are already more prone to suicide than other generations.
{"Factors behind elderly suicide rate examined," Washington, The Daily Progress newspaper, Charlottesville, Virginia, July 23, 2002}

Depression affects 17 million Americans a year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
{Washington Post Health, Oct 7, 1997}

One in four women will have a severe or major depression in their lifetime. For men it is one in eight. People who have depression shouldn't drink alcohol.
{in the book, “Depression,” by Sherry Rogers, MD}

In any given one-year period, 9.5% of the population, or about 18.8 million Americans suffer from a depressive illness.


35 million Americans each year suffer from SAD according to JAMA.
{Energy Times, Jan. 1998} Alcohol makes this worse.

One in five Americans are depressed or unhappy, and report high levels of stress, anxiety and sadness.
{Reuters Health, HealthCentral.com - Nov. 2000}

Physiological Effects of Alcohol - Role in Depression

Alcohol has been found to lower serotonin and norepinephrine levels.
{"Food and Mood," Natural Medicine Chest, Conquer Depression Without Drugs, Let's Live magazine, Jan. 2000}

"Alcohol is a depressant. People with depression shouldn't drink alcohol", says Sherry Rogers, MD, in her 1997 book on "Depression." She says that studies show that doctors miss diagnosing over 66% of the people who are depressed.

Alcohol temporarily blunts the effects of stress hormones. It typically leaves you feeling worse than ever because it depresses the brain and nervous system. One study looked at people who consumed one drink a day. After three months abstinence, their scores on standard depression inventories improved.
{The Brain, "You Can Control Your Emotional Wellness," USA WEEKEND, Jan. 3, 1999, Jim Thorton, health reporter}

People with manic-depressive disorder should not drink alcohol.
{James F. Balch, MD, newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster, 1990}

Although important for all ages, in older people folic acid deficiency contributes to aging brain processes and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

Depression is also common in those with folate deficiency.
{British Medical Journal, 2002} Andrew Weil, in his Self Healing newsletter (Jan. 2000) tells us alcohol use can lower levels of folic acid. The presence of alcohol hastens the breakdown of antioxidants in the blood, speeding their elimination from the body.

The acute depressant effect of alcohol increases with BAC, and has been measured in terms of its effects on human performance at BACs as low as 0.03.
{“Alcohol Effects on People,” U.S. Department of Transportation (HHTSA), Alcohol and Highway Safety, 2001, Dec. 2002}. Author’s comments: The BAC level of 0.03 can be obtained form one or two alcoholic beverages.

Depression and Alcohol Problems Go Together

When alcohol wears off, you will be more depressed than ever.
{Ann Landers' to readers, Dec. 5, 1993, as well as many other medical sources}

Depression and alcohol problems often go together, but the evidence suggests that in men alcohol use preceded the depression, whereas in women the depression precedes the alcohol use.
{American Journal of Epidemiology, "Study Links Depression and Alcohol Problems," Washington Post Health, Dec. 16, 1997}

Gene/Environment Interaction

Stress, or drugs such as alcohol or cocaine, can activate a gene that is linked to depression and other mental problems. The result can give rise to seizures, depression, manic-depressive episodes and a host of mental problems, says Robert Post, chief of the biological psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Health (NIH).
{Washington Post Health, Aug. 31, 1993}

We find that men suffer depression about equal to women, when the choice of alcohol is removed, as in their culture or religion. This is quite dramatic in showing us how critical our environment is in shaping how our genes are expressed. When under stress, women exhibit more depression and anxiety disorders: men exhibit more alcoholism, antisocial behavior and criminality.
{Public TV special, "The Secret of Life," with David Suzuki, Nov. 1993}

Occurrence and Statistics

In the U.S. there is a suicide every 17 minutes.
{“America Under Cover Documentary,” HBO documentary. In TV booklet - Feb. 2001}

In the U.S. there are over 30,000 deaths from suicide annually.
(Medline 2000)

Risk factors for suicide include depression, loss of job, living alone, poor social support, illness and alcohol use.
{alcoholmd.com - Oct. 2001}

About twice as many women attempt suicide, but men are four times as likely to die from the attempt than the women.

In 1998, suicide took the lives of over 30,000 Americans, and is the eighth leading cause of death. It was the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15 - 24.
{"Women Attempt Suicide More Than Men," womensissues.about.com - Jan. 2002}

Most Americans are unaware of the high rate of suicide among senior citizens, and researchers at the University of Iowa College of Medicine have issued a wake-up call for the elderly, their families, caregivers, and physicians. Although older Americans make up about 13 percent of the population, they account for nearly 20 percent of all suicides. An estimated five million of the 32 million people 65 and older suffer from depression. They are a more determined group to act and they use more lethal methods.
{"High National Rate of Senior Suicide Gaining Notice," Health World Online - http://healthy.net - July 2002} Author's comment: Alcohol causes depression and/or makes depression worse, and makes it more likely that a person would commit suicide.

Role of Alcohol in Suicide

Every year in the U.S. there are over 30,000 deaths from suicide. The use of alcohol may increase the risk of suicide by deepening depression, negatively affecting the ability to make decisions under stress, and interfering with the treatment of mental illness. ‘Don't drink and drive’ is not enough.

Far better is ‘don't drink.’
{Dr. David Hemenway, MD, researcher from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. September, 1999 issue of the American Journal of Public Health}

If you're depressed, don't drink. Even non-problem drinkers had an elevated risk of suicide in a Harvard Medical School study published in the Journal of Epidemiology. The study also found that the odds of attempting suicide are almost two times greater if you drink than if you are a teetotaler, even if you don't drink to excess. Alcohol relaxes inhibitions and makes it easier for thoughts to become actions. Alcohol is a depressant. Even relatively casual drinking or drug-taking is dangerous for people who are thinking of killing themselves. The problem is that people who are depressed or suicidal are often among those most likely to turn to alcohol or drugs, says Ronald C. Kessler, co-author of the study.
{"Alcohol fuels suicidal tendencies," WOR Health Center, Oct. 2002}

Relationship of Dietary Fats in Suicide Rates

A study of suicide rates in Europe found that countries with the highest per capita fat intakes also had the highest suicide rates. The majority of research, however, shows that essential fatty acids help to alleviate depression and boost moods.
{Natural Medicine Chest, Conquer Depression without Drugs, "Food and Mood," Let's Live magazine, Jan. 2000} Author's comment: Essential fatty acids are a different class of fats and they are the ones that help restore balance in the body.

June Russell is a retired health educator, researcher, journalist, and writer of health articles for newspapers and websites.

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