Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States, and is an issue that affects the lives of millions of Americans. Though the exact definition of binge drinking varies depending on the source, it is generally thought to be five drinks or more in a sitting for men, or four drinks or more in a sitting for women.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines binge drinking as drinking until your blood alcohol content is equal to or above 0.08 g/dl. People who binge drink do not necessarily have alcohol use disorder, but there are a number of disorders that can accompany, or be worsened by, binge drinking. One disorder that can be developed as a result of binge drinking, besides alcohol use disorder, is clinical depression.
Binge drinking has been related to clinical depression in a few prospective studies, but our understanding of what specific aspects of alcohol consumption cause depressive disorders remains relatively unknown. One study found that baseline binge drinking is known to increase the risk of suffering from depression five years later.
Depression in the United States
Clinical depression is more than just feeling sad or low, and is actually characterized by sustained depressive episodes, which can last days, weeks, or even months. As one of the most prominent mental health disorders in the world, depression affects 17.3 million Americans over the age of 17. Reasons for depression vary, and can include a number of outside factors, as well as someone’s brain chemistry. Many treatment options are available to those who are suffering from depression. Traditional methods like cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, are widely popular, evidence based practices.
Newer alternative and holistic therapeutic methods are also used to treat clinical depression, and some of these techniques include yoga therapy, mindfulness and meditation, art therapy, and many other options. Medication is also usually prescribed to those who are diagnosed with clinical depression to restore chemical balance in the brain. These medications are known to be generally successful, but outside stimuli as well as mental and physiological factors can play a role in the success of these medications.
The Effects of Alcohol on Brain Chemistry
The human brain relies on a delicate balance of chemicals like neurotransmitters, and processes sent out in the form of electrical activity. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning when it enters the system, it generally has a slowing effect on the body and mind. Much like illicit substances, alcohol has the power to alter the brain’s chemistry by affecting the levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Mental health disorders are also thought to be a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, as well as other factors including social environment.
Why Does Binge Drinking Often Exist Alongside to Depression?
Binge drinking and depression are often found to co-exist, but it is often hard to pinpoint which one was the causative factor and which one was the result. Excessive alcohol consumption and depression can become part of a vicious cycle, with each one exacerbating the symptoms of the other. Alcohol affects the chemical systems that control our mood, but science not exactly is not certain whether drinking alcohol leads someone to experience symptoms of depression. In order to treat clinical depression, doctors often prescribe medications such as antidepressants, more specifically, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs work to balance the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, but there are certain cases where depression is resistant to SSRIs. When someone is trying to cut down on their alcohol consumption, or abstain entirely, antidepressants have been shown reduce the risk of relapse for some. It is generally not advised that one drinks whilst taking SSRIs as it can cause increased drowsiness.
When Binge Drinking Becomes a Problem
Millions of Americans binge drink each year, and many of them live what most of us would consider a normal life. They might uphold responsibilities such as employment or school, and they may even have a family. So, how can we tell when binge drinking begins to spiral out of control?
When binge drinking episodes start to affect other areas of your life, you may have a problem. For those who do binge drink, a number of inconveniences or negative effects may arise in the hours or days following. This may include a hangover, excessive spending, regrettable behavior, or unwanted social interactions. When these negative effects are increasingly apparent, as well as mentally and socially taxing, it is possible that the person has a problem with binge drinking.
There are a number of signs that can be identified to notice problem drinking before it spirals out of control. Some of these warning signs include:
- Drinking more alcohol than you intend to in one sitting
- Having difficulty controlling the frequency at which you drink alcohol
- Inability to control alcohol consumption after a single drink
- Sudden loss of interest in activities that were once a passion, opting for alcohol consumption instead
- Nutritional problems as a result of a lost interest in physical health and dietary needs due to excessive alcohol consumption
- Financial troubles as a result of excessive alcohol consumption
- Legal troubles related to alcohol consumption
- Difficulty maintaining steady employment or poor performance in school related to timeliness, quality of work, and disciplinary actions
How to Avoid Binge Drinking and Depression
The toll that binge drinking can take on someone’s mental, physiological, and financial health is evident. In order to avoid the vicious cycle of binge drinking and depression, it is recommended to abstain from drinking. For those who are already binge drinkers, and concerned about their mental health, the best course of action is to seek professional help. People who suffer from clinical depression who are taking medication as a means of controlling their depressive episodes are at an increased risk to the issues associated with binge drinking if they do decide to binge drink.
A clinical diagnosis can help people uncover the root cause of their binge drinking or depression. In working out the causes and motivations people may have for drinking, and by showing them healthy coping strategies, it may reduce their depressive symptoms. Conversely, if it is depression which is causing the excessive drinking, then medical intervention will help them address that.
What to Do if a Loved One Who Suffers from Depression is Binge Drinking
The kindest thing that you can ever do for a loved one is suggest that they seek professional help. Keeping clinical depression under control generally requires therapeutic techniques and medication, and binge drinking can interfere with both of these things. A first step for someone who is suffering from depression but continues to binge drink is to seek treatment from a qualified professional. Interventions can be carried out in a non-judgmental and compassionate capacity, and your loved one will understand that it is done from a place of love and understanding.
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