This article will provide an overview of alcohol and antidepressants, exploring their effects and interactions. Many of my alcohol recovery coaching clients have been prescribed antidepressants, some of them for years or even decades.
I find it alarming that the very real interactions between alcohol and antidepressants are not discussed more often. In our heavy drinking culture, most people get drunk every now and then to “take the edge off” of life.
For the 1 in 6 Americans who take psychiatric medications, and who may also be slightly more predisposed to alcohol addiction, heavy drinking can be a dangerous lifestyle choice.
My experience demonstrates that you don’t need alcohol to enjoy life. I’m also extremely glad that I was able to restore balance to my mood after quitting drinking without becoming dependent on prescription drugs.
We will now proceed to overview the effects of alcohol and antidepressants on the brain. We also will cover the effects of combining these drugs, the use of antidepressants after quitting alcohol, and some alternatives that I’ve used to enahnce my sense of life and address long-term deficiencies in neurotransmitter balance.
Overview of Alcohol and Antidepressants
Overview Of Alcohol
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that is very similar in structure to GABA, which is the brain’s primary calming neurotransmitter. It also activates the brain’s mu and kappa opioid receptors. (source) In turn, alcohol releases dopamine and raises levels of serotonin. Alcohol’s effects on the brain are far-reaching and complex.
The most common side effects of alcohol include:
Alcohol causes an artificial spike in serotonin levels, which crash during alcohol withdrawal. As we will see, this is significant because many antidepressants work by amplifying the effects of serotonin.
Because of biochemical individuality, different people respond to alcohol in different ways. I became addicted to alcohol very quickly and at a relatively young age. For people who become addicted to alcohol, the effects of prolonged alcohol exposure can become very severe:
- High blood pressure
- Pancreas inflammation
- Liver cirrhosis
- Brain damage
- Damaged immune system
- Increased stroke risk
- Increased cancer risk
The liver breaks down alcohol into water, acetic acid, and acetaldehyde. This last compound is a poison that is responsible for hangovers and free radical damage to bodily cells, increasing inflammation and the risk of cancer.
Alcohol’s addictive potential seems to strongly correlate with individual biochemical makeup, which is determined by genes – and which are, in turn, activated by environmental factors such as lifestyle. About 88,000 Americans die each year of alcohol-related causes. (source)
Overview of Antidepressants
The most common antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, often called SSRIs. Serotonin is a chemical and neurotransmitter that regulates mood, social behavior, digestion, and sleep.
In some cases, depression is caused by an insufficient supply of serotonin. SSRIs keep serotonin concentrated between the synapses instead of being taken back up into neurons. Serotonin and other neurotransmitters exert most of their effects – such as relaxation – between synapses, which are gaps between neurons.
The most common antidepressants that fall into the SSRI category include:
- Prozac (fluoxetine)
- Zoloft (sertraline)
- Celexa (citalopram)
Other antidepressants are serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, also called SNRIs. These drugs work on receptors for both serotonin and norepinephrine, which is another neurotransmitter whose deficiency can lead to depression. The most common brands that fall under this category are:
- Effexor (venlafaxine)
- Cymbalta (duloxetine)
When SSRIs or SNRIs do not work, tricyclic antidepressants (also called TCAs) are often prescribed. Scientists have not yet discovered the mechanism by which TCAs treat depression.
Side Effects of Antidepressants
Antidepressants can potentially have some pronounced side effects, including:
- Weight gain
- Loss of libido
- Impaired vision
- Dry mouth
Most antidepressants are known to cause dependence when used for extended periods of time. If these drugs are stopped abruptly, psychosis and suicidal ideation can result. The use of antidepressants has increased in recent years, with 13% of Americans taking some form of antidepressant. (source)
Combination & Interactions
SSRIs like Prozac and Zoloft (fluoxetine and sertraline) can cause tiredness, interfering with coordinated movement and alertness. Combining these types of antidepressants with alcohol can lead to extreme drowsiness and sedation. More severe interactions between alcohol and antidepressants in this category include:
- Suicidal thoughts
Because Prozac and Zoloft are long-term drugs, interactions with alcohol can occur even if you don’t drink at the same time that you take the drug. It is recommended that people avoid alcohol when taking Prozac.
Prozac may cause a slight reduction in the desire to drink alcohol, but this drug is not effective on its own for treating alcohol dependence.
SNRIs like Venlafaxine and duloxetine (Effexor and Cymbalta) react similarly when mixed with alcohol. Alcohol and antidepressants in the SNRI category can interact in unpleasant ways, resulting in:
- Suicidal ideation
Scientists do not yet fully understand how TCAs interact with alcohol. Therefore, care should be taken when drinking while taking these drugs.
In my opinion, we have a silent epidemic of people who take antidepressants and also drink heavily. Due to the interactions listed above, this combination is extremely dangerous for mental health. Heavy drinking leads to nutrient and neurotransmitter deficiencies that antidepressants are not sufficient to resolve.
Supplements To Avoid While On Antidepressants
Due to possible interactions, people who take antidepressants should always consult their doctor before taking supplements.
Of particular concern are interactions between SSRIs, which artificially concentrate a person’s existing supply of serotonin between their synapses, and amino acids like L-tryptophan and 5HTP that are natural precursors for serotonin.
In rare but documented cases, combining SSRIs with L-tryptophan or 5HTP can cause serotonin syndrome, which can be potentially fatal.
With that said, clinicians have successfully weaned people off of antidepressants with the help of these amino acids. This should always be performed under the guidance of a doctor.
As a rule of thumb, SSRI antidepressants should not be combined with the following supplements:
- Garcinia Cambogia
For people who take SSRIs, care should also be taken with dosages of B-vitamins, Vitamin E, and Vitamin K. These basic nutrients are involved in regulating mood and the absorption of tricyclic medications.
If you are uncertain as to whether your antidepressant will interact with a given supplement, consult your doctor. If you do not have access to a doctor, you can also Google “[antidepressant name] and [supplement name]” and refer to trusted sources such as WebMD.
Use of Antidepressants For Alcohol Dependence
Before I quit drinking, I intuitively knew that alcohol and antidepressants would be a bad mix. I was consuming so much alcohol each day by the end of my addiction that the thought of adding prescription drugs terrified me.
After I detoxed from alcohol, I was asked by doctors if I wanted to take antidepressants to alleviate the depression that often comes with post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). Ultimately, I decided against this course of action.
While I do not judge anyone who takes antidepressants, I’m very glad that I did not take them myself. Studies have not found that antidepressants increase rates of abstinence or enhance alcohol recovery.
Some people clearly benefit from taking antidepressants long-term. I have friends and clients who are doing just fine on antidepressants, which they have taken for many years. However, up to 30% of people on antidepressants either do not respond to these drugs or find that they cause more harm than good. (source)
It’s not uncommon for people on antidepressants to experience complacency at inappropriate times or a reduced zest for life. Dig deep enough, and you’ll inevitably come across stories of people on antidepressants who felt nothing at funerals for family members – or who felt nothing but “flat” during moments that should have been the happiest in their life.
Other people experience an initial benefit from antidepressants that wanes with time, leaving them dependent on prescription drugs that keep them at baseline without enhancing their lives.
After I quit drinking, I realized that my depression was a symptom of PAWS. If I had suffered from major depression my entire life, I would have considered taking antidepressants. However, many people who have struggled with depression for their whole lives are beginning to find that exercise, diet changes, and natural supplementation works to alleviate the chronic deficiencies in neurotransmitters that cause depression.
Alternatives to Alcohol and Antidepressants
Over time, I discovered natural and holistic methods to cure the depression, anxiety, insomnia, and alcohol cravings that tortured me after I quit drinking.
Beginning an intense exercise regimen was VERY important for my recovery from alcohol addiction. Studies have shown that exercise can reduce depression as effectively as antidepressants, and doctors have even begun prescribing exercise to depressed patients. As it turns out, exercise helps the brain rewire itself away from alcohol addiction.
I also discovered natural supplements, such as L-Tryptophan and 5HTP mentioned above, that helped to restore normalcy to my serotonin production. These two supplements are just the tip of the iceberg.
If I were quitting alcohol today, I would take Calm Support, which contains L-Trytophan along with a number of other nutrients that have been proven to calm the mind and lift the mood.
Note: Because Calm Support contains L-Tryptophan, an amino acid precursor to serotonin, it should not be combined with antidepressants except under the supervision of a doctor.
As safer alternatives to alcohol, I’m a big fan of both kava and kratom. These natural alternatives are not entirely risk-free, but nothing in the world really is. Kava stimulates GABA receptors, while kratom activates endorphin centers in a less powerful way than opiates. I use both of these infrequently to enhance my overall experience of life.
Want to increase your levels of serotonin and norepinephrine without the use of alcohol or antidepressants? Here are a few ways you can achieve this without any substances at all:
- Begin a supplement regimen
- Swedish massage
- Yoga classes
- Exercise daily
- Get better sleep
- Clean up your diet
I hope you’ve taken useful information from this article about alcohol and benzodiazepines. If you struggle with dependence on alcohol, you will benefit from clicking around the articles on this website. If you struggle with drinking and you’re ready to transcend alcohol addiction forever, you have landed in the right place.
This website is the product of my vast experience with alcohol addiction, years of independent research, and numerous successes with clients in my private coaching programs.
If you have any questions about alcohol and antidepressants, please leave them in the comment box below.