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Alcohol and Depression

Some people say they drink alcohol to "drown their sorrows" after a bad breakup, job loss, or other major life stress. Alcohol does have a sedative effect on the brain. A few beers or glasses of wine can seem to relieve anxiety and make you feel more relaxed and calm.

A drink once in awhile when you are feeling stressed out or blue is one thing, but using alcohol as a way to deal with your problems could be a sign of alcohol abuse. Drinking heavily might also be an indication that you're depressed, or even be a cause of depression itself.

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Studies are finding a strong link between serious alcohol use and depression. The question is, does regular alcohol consumption lead to depression, or are depressed people more likely to drink excessively? Research is split on the issue. It's also possible that depression and alcohol abuse share common genetic or environmental risk factors that trigger both conditions.

Does Depression Lead to Alcohol Abuse?

Nearly one-third of people with major depression also have an alcohol problem, according to one major study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In many cases, depression may be the first to occur. Research shows that children who are depressed are more prone to develop alcohol problems once they reach adolescence. Teens who've had an episode of major depression are twice as likely as those who aren't depressed to start drinking alcohol.

Depression may be a particularly significant trigger for alcohol use in women, who are more than twice as likely to start drinking heavily if they have a history of depression. Experts say that women are more likely than men to self-medicate with alcohol.

Does Alcohol Abuse Lead to Depression?

A number of studies have shown that alcohol abuse increases the risk for depression. This connection may be because of the direct neurotoxic effects of heavy alcohol exposure to the brain. Researchers know that heavy alcohol consumption can lead to periods of depression.

Alcohol abuse also can have serious repercussions on a person's life, leading to financial and legal troubles, impaired thinking and judgment, as well as marital stress. If you're struggling with money or grappling with a failed relationship, you're more likely to feel depressed.

Are Genes or Lifestyle Factors Responsible for the Link Between Alcohol Use and Depression?

It's not clear yet whether depression triggers alcohol abuse or vice versa, but it's very likely that they share common triggers. Studies of twins have shown that the same factors that contribute to heavy drinking in families also contribute to the risk for major depression.

Researchers have been searching for a common gene or genes that might lie behind both conditions. They have pinpointed at least one -- a variant of the gene CHRM2 -- that is involved in several important brain functions, including memory and attention. Variations in this gene might put people at risk for alcohol dependence and depression.

A person's home and social environment also can play a big role in determining whether they will develop both depression and a drinking problem. Children who have been abused or who were raised in poverty appear to be more likely to develop both conditions.

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