How can alcohol use contribute to depression?

Perhaps you learned, as I did in high school, that alcohol is a “depressant”. This term is used to describe drugs and other substances that slow brain function and neural activity, but this is generally understood to refer to the short-term effects: relaxation, reduced inhibition, slower thinking, slurred speech, memory loss, etc.

I never imagined how much using alcohol can also contribute to a state of depression, but it most certainly can. First of all, the short-term depressant effects, and the lingering physical side-effects of alcohol use accumulate over time. All of those little bits of memories lost, hangover headaches, and hours or days given over to recovering from the excesses of the night before detract from our experience of living. I think of the sour mood that I would be in the day after drinking, and I can feel how that mood became normal, part of who I was. We all know the feeling of lacking energy and motivation after a long weekend involving a lot of drinking; what might you have done had you not lacked that energy and motivation?

The second major way that alcohol can contribute to depression is by decreasing sleep quality. While it’s sometimes thought that a nightcap improves sleep, the studies have shown that while alcohol might cause some people to fall asleep more quickly, thus leading them to believe it helps with sleep, but that alcohol very clearly interferes with REM sleep, the most restorative type of sleep. Sleep quality is one of the most direct predictors of overall health, and chronic disruption of sleep has been shown to cause… you guessed it, depression (among many other things).

Another major alcohol → depression pathway is the neurochemical cycle following ingestion alcohol. When we consume alcohol, it produces a short-term feeling of euphoria (usually lasting about twenty minutes), but in doing so, the result is that “more and more alcohol is needed to achieve the same level of euphoria as before”. At the same time, the body produces the neurochemical dynorphin in an effort to balance out the artificially-induced euphoria. Over time, the chronic oversupply of dynorphin literally brings us down. So, not only is our emotional baseline lowered over time by use of alcohol, we require more and more alcohol to reach the same emotional state, and there are other neurochemical effects that are working against us along the way.

In social terms, while alcohol can seem to reduce inhibitions and increase sociability, the net effect is to reduce real social connection, because, first of all, we tend to forget most of what we talk about when we’re drinking. Alcohol often masks our real feelings, and makes what would be intolerable interesting, or at least tolerable. We end up spending time with people who we might not otherwise spend time with, and having conversations that we wouldn’t waste our time with, if we weren’t drinking.

Finally, my personal experience has shown me that there is yet another significant way that using alcohol can contribute to depression. Alcohol suppresses all of the senses, especially our second sight: intuition. Without a strong sense of intuition, I didn’t know what I really wanted, and I didn’t have a good sense of who I was. Intuition is the voice of our self, and the whisper of our heart’s desires. I was lost, frustrated, angry, and anxious because I didn’t understand why I didn’t have a better sense of what I wanted or who I was. I didn’t yet understand how alcohol had stunted the development of my inner voice, and how that inner voice—my second sight—was so critical to my mental health. Over time, the frustration, anger and anxiety that I felt dragged me down into a state of depression, the black pool from which it can easily seem that there is no escape.

Further reading: Nobody asked me