Changes in Alcohol Consumption and Changes in Depression Symptoms

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            Changes in Alcohol Consumption and Changes in Depression Symptoms


Jim Windell


           Drinking beer or a highball can produce feelings of euphoria and excitement, making you feel instantly happier and more confident. But, those feelings are fleeting. Alcohol – as we all know – is a depressant. Yet, the fact is many Americans – even those who are well aware alcohol is a central nervous system depressant -- drink alcohol, even if they’re depressed.

           Literally, the more alcohol you drink, the more severe the symptoms. Depending on your intoxication level, you may experience decreased inhibition, loss of judgement, confusion, and mood swings, among other things.

            However, will increasing or decreasing your amount of drinking bring about a corresponding change in depression symptoms?

            According to a new study recently published in the journal Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research, changes in alcohol consumption tend to accompany changes in symptoms of depression. 

           In the study, researchers reviewed responses from 200,000 individuals about drinking behaviors and depression symptoms at primary care visits between 2016 and 2020. Participants were adults who completed questionnaires about alcohol use and depression as part of routine health care on two occasions 11 to 24 months apart. About one-quarter reported unhealthy alcohol use, and about 13 percent screened positive for depression. Three-quarters had no changes in alcohol use from the time of the first questionnaire to the second. 

           The screening tools used in the study were the AUDIT-C, a validated instrument to identify high-risk alcohol behavior, and PHQ-2, a validated depression screening tool. The questionnaires on which the study was based may be subject to biases related to self-report and interactions in the health care setting. Questionnaires were administered in Washington state; the study population was predominantly white, non-Hispanic, older, and insured by commercial insurance or Medicare.

           For all but two subgroups with an increase in drinking risk level, there was a significant increase in the prevalence of positive depression screens ranging from 11 percent to 100 percent higher at the time of the second questionnaire compared to the first. The exceptions were those whose drinking increased from none to a level of drinking not considered unhealthy and those whose drinking increased from high risk to very high risk.

           In those subgroups reporting decreased drinking, the prevalence of positive depression screens dropped from 17 percent to 49 percent from the time of the first questionnaire to the second. The only subgroup where a drop in depression prevalence did not accompany a reduction in drinking were those whose drinking dropped from levels not considered unhealthy when completing the first questionnaire to no drinking at the second assessment.

           Those individuals who reported reductions in alcohol use simultaneously reported reductions in depression symptoms – even when their alcohol consumption exceeded healthy levels. Similarly, those who endorsed increased alcohol use also reported increased depression, whether or not the amount they drank was at a level considered unhealthy. The findings may motivate individuals to reduce their drinking to improve their mood and suggest that monitoring changes in alcohol consumption may be helpful as part of clinical interventions for depression.

           The study did not examine what caused the changes in alcohol use and depression symptoms. The authors suggest that the simultaneous increases or decreases in both depression symptoms and alcohol use could be attributed to increased or decreased drinking causing changes in depression, improved or worsening depression leading to increases or decreases in drinking, or other factors leading to changes in both depression and drinking.  

           To read the article, find it with this reference:

Hallgren, K. A., Jack, H. E., Oliver, M., Berger, D., Bobb, J. F., Kivlahan, D. R., & Bradley, K. A. (2023). Changes in alcohol consumption reported on routine healthcare screenings are associated with changes in depression symptoms. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.



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