The Connection between Alcohol Dependence and Depression

If you have struggled with alcohol or love someone who has, it comes as no surprise to you that alcohol affects mood. It can turn a mild mannered person into a raging lunatic, a calm person into a hysterical fool, or a happy person into a mess of crying and sadness. Of course, for those who have become dependent on alcohol the effects may not seem as extreme, but the damage and struggle on a day to day basis is much greater.

It also may not surprise those who are in the thick of depression and drinking problems that there is a real connection between the two. The link has long been suspected, and probably known for a certainty by those who experience it, but recent studies into the connection have found definite evidence that one can lead to the other.

What is depression?

Being diagnosed with clinical or major depression is a very serious statement. Many of us experience the signs of depression from time to time, but to have a clinical case, you must display certain symptoms for an extended period of time. Symptoms of depression include:

  • Changes in eating habits, such as eating more or less and gaining or losing weight as a result
  • Changes in sleeping habits; sleeping more or less than normal
  • Fatigue and general lack of energy
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Loss of interest in daily activities and routines
  • Difficulty thinking and concentrating
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Suicidal thoughts

What is alcohol dependence?

As with clinical depression, there are many symptoms or behaviors that must be seen to determine your relationship to alcohol. If you have a healthy drinking habit, you should experience none of these symptoms, or maybe one or two of them only occasionally.

  • Using alcohol even when health or safety is compromised
  • Difficulty functioning at work or in other situations because of drinking
  • Becoming tolerant to alcohol, or needing more and more to get drunk
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, which can include shaking, elevated heart rate, sweating, high blood pressure, and in severe cases seizures and hallucinations

What is the connection?

When glancing at the symptoms of depression and alcoholism, the connection is not immediately apparent. They certainly seem like two different conditions, and they are. However, you can imagine that one might lead to the other. Someone who is depressed might turn to alcohol to feel better. And someone struggling with a dependence on alcohol could clearly become depressed as a result. Research conducted in recent years has confirmed that the two illnesses are indeed related.

The Harvard School of Public Health conducted a year-long study in which the researchers found this connection in their participants. They interviewed nearly 15,000 people from different cities about symptoms of depression and alcohol use at an interval of one year. At the start of the study, none of the participants had ever been diagnosed with clinical depression or alcohol dependence. They were asked twice, a year apart, if they had any of the symptoms of depression or alcoholism.

The results were expected in some ways, and yet also surprising. The researchers found that those people who displayed at least a few symptoms of depression during the first interview were more likely to have some symptoms of alcohol dependence by the second interview a year later. The more symptoms of depression a participant had, the greater their risk of abusing alcohol. Similarly, those who had symptoms of alcohol dependence initially were at greater risk of being diagnosed with major depression later.

The surprising result was that in both instances, depression leading to alcoholism and alcoholism leading to depression, women were at much greater risk than men. This study helped to verify that alcohol dependence can lead to depression and vice versa and that the connection is much stronger for women than for men.

Other studies have found similar results, including the greater risk for women. They also show that binge drinking is especially responsible for the onset of depression. That is, someone who drinks a lot all at once is much more likely to feel subsequent symptoms of depression than someone who drinks the same amount, but not all at once. Other researchers have also found that young people who are depressed are more likely to start drinking than their peers.

The research on the link between alcoholism and depression is important because it can inform treatment for both conditions. When being treated for depression, a patient may be warned about the risks of substance abuse. And recovery counselors can help addicts fight depression along with their dependence.

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