Alcohol for Relaxation

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 Question mark: This treatment has not been properly researched. It is not possible to say whether they are useful or not.

What is it?

Alcohol is a liquid made by fermenting gains, fruit or other sources of sugar. There are many different types of alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine and spirits. In Australia, only people aged 18 and over can legally drink and purchase alcohol.  

Some people find that drinking alcohol can make them relaxed and lead to a temporary improvement in their mood.

How does it work?

Alcohol has complex effects on many parts of the brain. Alcohol interacts with chemical messengers in the brain, particularly the neurotransmitter GABA. This causes a decrease in activity in the brain.

Small amounts of alcohol can make some people feel relaxed and reduce anxiety, but alcohol consumption can quickly lead to intoxication and harmful effects.

Is it effective?

Many studies have found a link between alcohol consumption and mood. In general, people who drink a moderate amount of alcohol have a lower risk of developing depression than people who do not drink at all. However, this does not mean that alcohol protects against depression. People may abstain from alcohol due to other reasons, for example, because they have a chronic illness, and this could explain their increased risk of depression. It is also important to remember that these studies have looked at alcohol consumption in the general population, and not just how alcohol effects people who are depressed.

There have been no scientific studies which have looked at using alcohol as a treatment for depression.

Heavy drinking is associated with poor mental health. As explained in our entry about Alcohol Avoidance, people who drink heavily are at a higher risk of developing depression.

Are there any disadvantages?

There are several disadvantages of using alcohol. In the short term, drinking alcohol can cause intoxication. Even in smaller quantities, alcohol can affect driving skills and the ability to do other tasks (for example, perform duties at work) and this increases the risk of accidents. It can lead people to do things they will regret later or feel guilty about. In the longer term it can harm physical and mental health, and can lead to addiction.

Alcohol may lessen the effectiveness of antidepressants and other medications, although some drinking is usually allowed for people taking them. If you are taking medication, you can talk to your doctor or pharmacist about how alcohol might impact your medication.

Heavy drinking is associated with many negative physical effects, as well as violence and other antisocial behaviour. The Australian guidelines for alcohol use recommend that you should drink no more than two standard drinks on any day.

If you would like to assess your current drinking habits, you can complete a short risk assessment tool provided by the Mental Health Commission in Western Australia.

Look at the Drug & Alcohol Counselling section of the Yellow Pages, or you can visit the Drinkwise Australia website for a list of support services.

Where do you get it?

Laws restrict the sale of alcohol in Australia, but it is widely sold from licensed outlets to people aged 18 years or over.

Recommendation

Moderate alcohol intake does not appear to raise the risk of depression. However, the direct effects of alcohol on clinical depression are unknown. Heavy drinking is not recommended (see entry for Alcohol Avoidance). Even lighter drinkers need to be aware that drinking alcohol could damage their health and have harmful effects on their work performance or personal relationships. Drinking alcohol along with antidepressants or other medication should be discussed with a doctor.

Key references

  • Bellos, S., Skapinakis, P., Rai, D., Zitko, P., Araya, R., Lewis, G., Mavreas, V. (2013). Cross-cultural patterns of the association between varying levels of alcohol consumption and the common mental disorders of depression and anxiety: secondary analysis of the WHO Collaborative Study on Psychological Problems in General Health Care. Drug Alcohol Depend, 133(3), 825-831.
  • Gea, A., Beunza, J. J., Estruch, R., Sánchez-Villegas, A., Salas-Salvadó, J., Buil-Cosiales, P., Martínez-González, M. A. (2013). Alcohol intake, wine consumption and the development of depression: the PREDIMED study. BMC Medicine, 11(1), 1-11.
  • Gea, A., Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A., Toledo, E., Sanchez-Villegas, A., Bes-Rastrollo, M., Nuñez-Cordoba, J. M., Beunza, J. J. (2012). A longitudinal assessment of alcohol intake and incident depression: the SUN project. BMC Public Health, 12(1), 1-10.
  • Kane, J. C., Rapaport, C., Zalta, A. K., Canetti, D., Hobfoll, S. E., & Hall, B. J. (2014). Regular drinking may strengthen the beneficial influence of social support on depression: findings from a representative Israeli sample during a period of war and terrorism. Drug Alcohol Depend, 140, 175-182.
  • Skogen, J. C., Harvey, S. B., Henderson, M., Stordal, E., & Mykletun, A. (2009). Anxiety and depression among abstainers and low-level alcohol consumers. The Nord-Trondelag Health Study. Addiction, 104(9), 1519-1529.

Last updated and reviewed: 1 November 2019