Depression has grown into a modern-day health crisis, with 17.3 million American adults in 2017 reporting at least one major depressive episode. At least 23 percent have experienced depression in the past two weeks.
Thankfully, there are many effective treatments for dealing with this issue, including a class of antidepressants known as SSRIs. These medications can be very helpful, but if you’re also struggling with alcohol addiction you should think twice before combining these two mood-altering drugs. Here’s why the relationship between alcohol, depression, and antidepressants is complex, and why it’s best not to take an SSRI and alcohol at the same time.
What Is an SSRI?
SSRI stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of happiness and well-being. As serotonin travels through the nervous system, the nerve cells reabsorb some of it. It’s a process known as reuptake, and it leaves less free serotonin for the brain. This deficit can worsen depression or anxiety.
SSRIs are medications that block the reuptake of serotonin, improving depression symptoms. This can help people get more benefit from other treatment methods like psychiatric therapy. Common brand names include Zoloft, Prozac, Paxil, and Lexapro.
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Why Can’t You Drink on Antidepressants?
While combining alcohol and SSRIs doesn’t appear to cause acute poisoning or other dire effects, your physician will probably still steer you away from alcohol while you’re on an SSRI. There are several good reasons for this:
Increased SSRI side effects
On their own, SSRIs can cause side effects such as insomnia, headaches, rash, dry mouth, sexual side effects, digestive trouble, dizziness, and drowsiness. Since alcohol causes some of the same side effects, you could be handing yourself a double dose of discomfort.
SSRIs may aggravate alcohol cravings
While antidepressants may help some heavy drinkers reduce their alcohol consumption, other evidence suggests that SSRIs can actually worsen alcohol cravings in certain people who combine both drugs, leading those people to drink more. If you’re at risk for alcohol use disorder (AUD), an SSRI could push you over the line from controlled drinking to alcohol abuse.
Reduced effectiveness of depression treatment
The main reason to cut down or stop drinking while taking an SSRI is that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Drinking at the same time can reduce or remove the benefits you might be getting from the antidepressant.
The Bottom Line on Antidepressants and Alcohol
There’s no denying that alcohol abuse and depression are strongly linked. In fact, struggling with one can double your chances of developing the other. Antidepressants can play a critical role in steadying your mood and helping you live a normal life, making it easier to avoid developing problems with alcohol.
The flip side of this is you may need to give up drinking altogether if you are taking SSRI medication. This can be frustrating if you like to have the occasional social drink and you don’t consider yourself alcohol dependent. But, on the other hand, if you’ve drank to cope with depression in the past, taking SSRIs may be another good excuse to end the habit—especially if you find that the medication is helping with your symptoms.
If you’re struggling to cut back on drinking, and you’re being treated for depression, there are additional forms of support to consider. Ria Health offers convenient online treatment from an app on your phone, including coaching sessions to help you cope with cravings. We even prescribe anti-craving medications like naltrexone, which, unlike alcohol, is often compatible with antidepressants.
In closing, you should always speak to your doctor before combining SSRIs with alcohol or any other medication. But in most cases, you’ll be best off avoiding alcohol on antidepressants.