The research is out there – if you suffer from a mood disorder (depression or bipolar disorder) and you drink alcohol – it can affect your mood stability.
What does alcohol do to the brain?
Alcohol enters the body via the stomach and is absorbed and transported in the blood to the brain (amongst other organs). In the brain, it affects various neurochemicals – particularly in a way that causes euphoria (happiness), slowed thinking, sleepiness and disinhibition. This is a good explanation of what alcohol does to your body. For a slightly more scientific view have a look at one of favorite sites – where you can see how the alcohol works in the brain.
So Doc, can I have a drink?
It’s sometimes hard to explain to patients who have mood disorders, when they ask – Can I have a drink?
There is often no simple answer.
My answer is generally – ‘It depends’ and I consider the following things
Does it really help your moods and emotions if you abstain from alcohol use?
From what I have seen, yes it does. Some people find it difficult in the beginning without alcohol since they have been using it to self-medicate for a long time. When the alcohol is removed- your emotions become more apparent. So in the short term, it can be hard, but in the long term patients markedly see the benefits. I have seen patients stabilize with little or no change to medication – when they stop any use of drugs or alcohol.
My own thoughts
I struggle to medicate patients who are drinking consistently, and report that they are not sleeping or that they feel terribly depressed or tired all the time. Psychiatric medications are useful, but they can lose their effectiveness when they are working against to a substance like alcohol. It doesn’t make sense to me to add another drug (specifically a sedating one or a stimulant) to the mix, when individuals are not planning to stop drinking. Treating an underlying mood disorder is needed e.g. with a mood stabilizer or antidepressant is useful, but won’t help entirely while you are still drinking.
Please speak to your treating doctor if you have questions about how alcohol specifically affects you.
A useful link – Alcohol, Drugs and Bipolar Disorder