Alcohol Avoidance

Our rating
For people with drinking problems 1 smiley: This treatment is promising and may be useful. It has some evidence to support it, but more evidence is needed to be sure it works.
For people without drinking problems No smiley: On the available evidence, these treatments do not seem to be effective.

What does this rating mean?

The rating system

  • 3 smiliesThese treatments are very useful. They are strongly supported as effective by scientific evidence.
  • 2 smiliesThese treatments are useful. They are supported by scientific evidence as effective, but the evidence is not as strong.
  • 1 smileyThese treatments are promising and may be useful. They have some evidence to support them, but more evidence is needed to be sure they work.
  • No smiley On the available evidence, these treatments do not seem to be effective.
  • Question markThese treatments have not been properly researched. It is not possible to say whether they are useful or not.
  • These treatments are not recommended and could be dangerousSafety or other concerns have been raised for the use of these treatments.

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.  

Alcohol avoidance involves cutting down or stopping drinking alcoholic beverages.

How does it work?

Heavy drinkers, and especially people addicted to alcohol, are more likely to suffer from depression. There are two main ways in which cutting out alcohol may help with depression:

  • It is thought that heavy drinking can lead directly to depression and so cutting out alcohol will reverse this effect.
  • It could help by reducing problems caused by drinking, such as money problems, problems at work and relationship problems.

Is it effective?

There is very little evidence on the effectiveness of cutting down alcohol as a treatment for depression. However, there is research that has looked for links between alcohol use and depression in large groups of people.

A systematic review of 15 studies found that people who have an alcohol use disorder are twice as likely to have major depression compared to those who do not have an alcohol use disorder. However, more research is needed to determine exactly how these two disorders are linked. It could be that having an alcohol use disorder makes you more likely to develop depression, or that those who already have depression are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. For people who have an alcohol use disorder, stopping drinking often results in an improvement in their depression symptoms.  

A large Australian survey found that for people who do not have an alcohol use disorder, there seems to be no link between alcohol use and depression. People who do not drink, or who have cut back their use, have about the same risk of developing depression as people who drink regularly.

Are there any disadvantages?

For people who are heavy drinkers, giving up alcohol can produce withdrawal effects which can be serious. If you think you may have an alcohol use disorder and you would like to stop drinking alcohol, you should talk to your doctor about how to do this safely.  

Where do you get it?

People can cut down on their drinking without professional assistance, but there are also services and organisations that can help. 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. People with long-term drinking problems and those who are dependent on alcohol are more likely to need expert help to reduce their drinking.

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.

Recommendation

For the general population there is no evidence that restricting alcohol intake is beneficial for depression. For heavy drinkers or those with alcohol use disorder, alcohol avoidance may improve their depression symptoms. 

Key references

  • Boden, J. M., & Fergusson, D. M. Alcohol and depression. Addiction 2011; 106(5), 906-914.
  • Brown SA, Schuckit, MA. Changes in depression among abstinent alcoholics. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 1988; 49: 412-417.
  • Charlet K, Heinz A. Harm reduction—a systematic review on effects of alcohol reduction on physical and mental symptoms. Addiction biology. 2017; 22(5): 1119-59.
  • Davidson KM. Diagnosis of depression in alcohol dependence: changes in prevalence with drinking status. British Journal of Psychiatry 1995; 166: 199-204.
  • Liang, W., & Chikritzhs, T. Reduction in alcohol consumption and health status. Addiction 2011; 106(1), 75-81.

Last updated and reviewed: 1 November 2019