Why Mixing Antidepressants and Alcohol is Never a Good Idea

Last Updated: Mar 5th 2020

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky

Why Mixing Antidepressants and Alcohol is Never a Good Idea

Antidepressants are often prescribed by a licensed professional to help individuals struggling with depression or other mental illnesses. When used as directed and under the right circumstances, antidepressants can be extremely beneficial and help people live better lives. When abused or mixed with mind-altering substances however, they can be an extreme danger to both the mental and physical health of an individual. This is why mixing antidepressants and alcohol is a very dangerous idea.

How do Antidepressants Work?

There are dozens of antidepressants and they differ in some ways. But the general intention of all of them is to control the hormones and chemicals in the brain and body that are responsible for mood and behavior. 

In general, antidepressants rewire the different circuits of neurotransmitters in the brain to create more of the positive chemicals and less of the negative. Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are some of the neurotransmitters responsible for our moods and behaviors. 

The amount of each of these chemicals released in the brain determines how we feel. Those who are lacking in these chemicals, and the result is often depression, anxiety, or a combination of both. Antidepressants increase these neurotransmitters which help the body function at more optimal levels. 

Side Effects of Antidepressants

The downside of antidepressants is that they can come with a whole host of side effects, some more severe than others. Everyone will have different experiences and some may not feel anything at all. It should be known, however, that since antidepressants affect brain chemicals, they also affect motor control and function. For this reason, it’s crucial to take them as prescribed and to alert your doctor if you feel any unwanted symptoms. 

Some of the side effects of common antidepressants include:

  • nausea
  • insomnia
  • dry mouth
  • blurred vision
  • constipation
  • dizziness
  • agitation
  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • fatigue and drowsiness
  • increased appetite and weight gain
  • loss of sexual desire and other sexual problems

Beyond these common side effects, some may experience more serious side effects including: 

  • Hallucinations
  • Severe mood swings
  • Hostility or aggressiveness
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Anxiety, agitation, or panic attacks
  • Other unusual changes in behavior
  • Any unusual bleeding or bruising
  • Chest pain, dizziness, or fainting
  • Engaging in unusual or dangerous activities

Alcohol’s Effect on the Body

Many people drink safely and socially and do not have an addiction to alcohol. When used in moderation, alcohol has a slightly sedative and mood-boosting effect on the body. However, too much alcohol or frequent intake of alcohol can take a toll a pretty big health toll on anyone.  

Since alcohol affects the motor control and nervous system of the body, it can have reactions with other mind-altering substances. It can also lower your inhibitions and cause you to try other drugs you wouldn’t normally take when in a sober state of mind.

In general, alcohol lowers your ability to focus, make decisions, and maintain control of your basic motor functions (walking, talking, quick movements, etc)

Alcohol is absorbed into the blood, stomach, liver, and kidneys. The liver and kidneys are meant to flush out any natural toxins that come through the body but aren’t equipped to handle large amounts in a short period of time. For this reason, binge drinking can lead to severe liver and kidney damage.

Although these are long term side effects, there are many common short term side effects that you may experience. Some of them include:

  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Vision impairment
  • Lack of coordination
  • Extreme shifts in mood
  • Memory lapses
  • Slowed breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting

Drinking Alcohol While Taking Antidepressants 

Any mixture of substances can cause dangerous side effects, and it’s strongly advised not to drink alcohol while taking antidepressants. For starters, alcohol makes depression worse and, if you are prescribed antidepressants, this is the last thing you want. 

The combination is also likely to increase symptoms of dizziness, nausea, brain fog or feeling “out of it”, and lower your coordination control. This combination could lead to physical accidents such as falling or slipping.

Depending on what kind of antidepressant you take, you could be at risk for a dangerous reaction. When combined with certain types of alcoholic beverages, antidepressants called monoamine oxidase inhibitors can cause a spike in blood pressure. 

Other types of antidepressants, such as SSRIs or Tricyclics will have a more sedative effect when taken while drinking alcohol. You should check with your doctor to make sure you know what reactions your medications could cause. 

Mixing Alcohol and Antidepressants: A Sign of Polysubstance Abuse

If drinking alcohol while taking antidepressants becomes a routine, you may be suffering from polysubstance abuse. While addiction is commonly referred to the dependence on one single substance, in cases of polysubstance abuse, individuals are addicted to the high they get from multiple substances. 

Abusing more than one substance is not only more dangerous and poses stronger health risks, but is also more complex to treat. If you find yourself mixing alcohol with antidepressants regularly, you may be suffering from a combination of alcoholism and pill addiction. Polysubstance abuse should be diagnosed by a medical professional and treated through an individualized program that addresses the mental and physical aspects of both addiction and alcoholism. 

When Alcohol Co-occurs with Depression

While some cases are that of polysubstance abuse, others are considered co-occuring conditions. In these cases, the individual is not mixing substances in order to get a desired high. Instead, they are using alcohol to cope with their depression. 

Alcohol will make any person’s depression worse. Not only will it cause their physical body to function at less than optimal levels, but their emotions will also be thrown off. Alcohol may seem to boost your mood at first, but that’s only in very small doses. Drinking too much alcohol strips your body of the necessary enzymes, hormones, and chemicals that keep our “good mood” signals flowing. 

Alcohol is also one of the most difficult substances to recover from. The reason being that detox can pose fatal side effects and should always be done under the supervision of a licensed professional. Some of the side effects of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Fever
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Confusion
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Heavy Sweating

If you’re using alcohol to cope with depression, the side effects of withdrawal could make your depression worse and trigger you to keep drinking. This is a dangerous spiral, so avoiding alcohol altogether while taking antidepressants is best. 

If you do become addicted to alcohol while trying to cope with depression, it’s important you seek professional help for both conditions and not just one. 

Who is at Risk For Alcohol and Antidepressant Use?

Those with family history: Anyone with a history of alcoholism is at higher risk for abusing alcohol themselves. In many cases, a co-occurring mental health history is present, making them more likely to abuse antidepressants as well. 

Those with depression: Anyone suffering from depression is at a greater risk of abusing both substances. Whether they are looking to cope with alcohol, are prescribed antidepressants and only intended to drink moderately, this combination often results in abuse for those with depression symptoms. 

Those who experiment with drugs: People who experiment with drugs often, whether for social or personal reasons, have a greater chance of mixing antidepressants with alcohol and experiencing their unwanted symptoms. 

Treatment For Alcohol and Antidepressant Use

Co-occurring alcohol abuse and depression call for special treatment at a professional facility. When polysubstance abuse is diagnosed, each substance needs to be addressed individually so that the body is properly detoxed and the emotional aspects of both are equally cared for. 

Doctors need to figure out which condition started first and how each one ties into the person’s life. Treating one substance abuse without understanding why the two co-occur will not result in true recovery.

Treatment Options

Once you find a professional treatment center, detox is always the first step. This is the most important step in drug rehab as the body needs to be completely flushed of any substances or toxins related to the substance. Without a successful detox, the body will still be functioning to some degree on the substance. Detox should be completed in a medical facility under the supervision of professionals, especially in the case of alcohol withdrawal. 

Seeking treatment at a professional rehabilitation center will offer the individual the benefit of all the services needed to recover in one place under the supervision of licensed professionals.  Since alcohol poses life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, it’s important to find a good program with experienced medical staff. Some of the services you can expect to receive in treatment for polysubstance abuse and co-occurring disorders include:

  • Medication
  • Behavioral counseling
  • Nutritional Counseling
  • Coping Skills Courses 
  • Acupuncture/ Yoga/ Meditation
  • Long-term follow-up to prevent relapse
  • Medical devices and applications used to treat withdrawal symptoms or deliver skills training
  • Evaluation and treatment for co-occurring mental health issues such as depression and anxiety

Talk therapy options such as Cognitive Behavioral or ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) help individuals remap their thinking patterns and create healthy coping mechanisms to get through difficult life periods. for helping people overcome their habits and thinking patterns that lead to substance abuse. The ability to rewire the brain’s way of thinking and perceiving situations will offer powerful tools to cope with difficult situations and remain drug-free for good.

Additionally, adding holistic treatment options such as art therapy, acupuncture, yoga, and mediation will help address the individual as a whole. Treating the body and mind at the same time will help those suffering from alcohol abuse and depression understand how they can heal themselves without substances. 

Seeking Professional Help 

Asking for help isn’t easy, but if you suspect you are abusing alcohol, antidepressants, or both at the same time, finding a treatment center that’s right for you is crucial. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you start your journey to recovery. Give us a call here at 1st Step Behavioral Health to learn how we can assist you today.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky

Brittany PolanskyBrittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is a Primary Clinician at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.