Mental health problems not only result from drinking too much alcohol. They can also cause people to drink too much. There is some evidence associating light drinking with improved health in some adults. Between one and three units daily have been found to help protect against heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and a small glass of red wine daily may reduce risk of stroke in women.
However there is much more evidence showing that drinking too much alcohol leads to serious physical and mental illnesses.
Put very simply, a major reason for drinking alcohol is to change our mood – or change our mental state. Alcohol can temporarily alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression; it can also help to temporarily relieve the symptoms of more serious mental health problems.
Alcohol problems are more common among people with more severe mental health problems. This does not necessarily mean that alcohol causes severe mental illness. Drinking to deal with difficult feelings or symptoms of mental illness is sometimes called ‘self-medication’ by people in the mental health field. This is often why people with mental health problems drink. But it can make existing mental health problems worse.
Evidence shows that people who consume high amounts of alcohol are vulnerable to higher levels of mental ill health and it can be a contributory factor in some mental illnesses, such as depression.
How does drinking affect our moods and mental health?
When we have alcohol in our blood, our mood changes, and our behaviour then also changes. How these change depends on how much we drink and how quickly we drink it. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, and this can make us less inhibited in our behaviour. It can also help ‘numb’ our emotions, so we can avoid difficult issues in our lives.
Alcohol can also reveal or magnify our underlying feelings. This is one of the reasons that many people become angry or aggressive when drinking. If our underlying feelings are of anxiety, anger or unhappiness, then alcohol can magnify them.
What about the after-effects?
One of the main problems associated with using alcohol to deal with anxiety and depression is that people may feel much worse when the effects have worn off. Alcohol is thought to use up and reduce the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain, but the brain needs a certain level of neurotransmitters needs to ward off anxiety and depression. This can lead some people to drink more, to ward off these difficult feelings, and a dangerous cycle of dependence can develop.
How much is too much?
Current recommended ‘Sensible Drinking’ limits are three to four units a day for men and two to three units a day for women.
1 pint beer (5% vol) = 3 units
1 pint lager (3% vol) = 2 units
1 small glass wine (12% vol) = 2 units
1 measure spirit (40% vol) = 1 unit