Alcohol and mental health

Alcohol has been an important part of our society and culture for many centuries. Across the UK, people of all ages drink various amounts of alcohol, with both positive as well as negative effects in the short and longer term.1

 

What effect can alcohol have on us?

The reason we drink and the consequences of excessive drinking are linked with our mental health. Mental health problems not only result from drinking too much alcohol, they can also cause people to drink too much.2 

There is some evidence that has associated light to moderate alcohol consumption with a reduced risk of multiple cardiovascular outcomes (alcohol consumption at 1 drink a day).3  Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption also seems to improve performance on cognitive tests.4

However there is much more evidence showing that drinking too much alcohol leads to serious physical and mental illnesses.5,6

Put very simply, a major reason for drinking alcohol is to change our mood – or our mental state.7 Alcohol can temporarily alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression and people often use it a form of ‘self-medication’ in an attempt to cheer themselves up or sometimes help with sleep.8 Drinking to deal with difficult feelings or symptoms of mental illness is sometimes called ‘self-medication’ by people in the mental health field. This is often why people with mental health problems drink. But it can make existing mental health problems worse.9 It can also be used as a form of coping for severe mental illness.10

Alcohol problems are more common among people with more severe mental health problems. This does not necessarily mean that alcohol causes severe mental illness. Evidence shows that people who consume high amounts of alcohol are vulnerable to increased risk of developing mental health problems and alcohol consumption can be a contributing factor to some mental health problems, such as depression.11

How does drinking affect our mood and mental health?

Drinking lowers inhibition. Typically, excessive alcohol consumption means fewer personal constraints are in place. Additionally, alcohol can disrupt our body’s ability to rest, resulting in our body needing to work harder to break down the alcohol in our system. This interference of alcohol with sleep patterns can lead to reduced energy levels.12  

Alcohol also depresses the central nervous system, and this can make our moods fluctuate. It can also help ‘numb’ our emotions, so we can avoid difficult issues in our lives.13

Alcohol can also reveal or intensify our underlying feelings, such as evoking past memories of trauma or sparking any repressed feelings which are associated with painful events of the past. These memories can be so powerful that they create overwhelming anxiety, depression or shame. Re-living these memories and dark feelings whilst under the influence of alcohol can pose a threat to personal safety as well as the safety of others.14

What about the after effects?

One of the main problems associated with using alcohol to deal with mental health problems is that regular consumption of alcohol changes the chemistry of the brain. It decreases the levels of the brain chemical serotonin - a key chemical in depression. As a result of this depletion, a cyclical process begins where one drinks to relieve depression, which causes serotonin levels in the brain to be depleted, leading to one feeling even more depressed, and thus necessitating even more alcohol to then medicate this depression.15

 

How much is too much?

Current recommended 'sensible drinking' limits are three to four units a day for men and two to three units a day for women.

  • 1 pint beer (5% vol) = 3 units
  • 1 pint lager (3% vol) = 2 units
  • 1 small glass wine (12% vol) = 2 units
  • 1 measure spirit (40% vol) = 1 unit

 

How do I get help?

The following organisations provide help to people who have or think they may have problems consuming too much alcohol.

References