May Alcohol Trigger Genetic Marker for Depression?

Alcohol and Depression

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a depressive disorder “interferes with daily life, normal functioning, and causes pain for both the person with the disorder and those who care about him or her.” Depression is a brain disorder and although research is still being conducted to determine the exact causes, the NIMH states “it likely results from a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors.  ”Alcohol is a well-known depressant drug, which means it relaxes the body and causes a person’s reaction time and mood to be altered through slowing down the central nervous system. Since alcohol has a direct impact on the brain, and it also alters a person’s biochemistry, the possibility that alcohol may trigger depression has been worth scientific study.

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New Zealand Study

In New Zealand, a new study has been conducted to determine if alcohol may cause depression. Previous researches have identified a link between alcohol abuse or dependence and major depression. But it hasn't been determined whether one disorder causes the other, or whether a common genetic or environmental factor increases the risk for both conditions.

This new study included 1,055 people born in 1977 who were assessed for alcohol abuse and depression at ages 17 to 18, 20 to 21, and 24 to 25. The number of participants who met criteria for alcohol problems and major depression were: 19.4 percent and 18.2 percent, respectively, at ages 17 to 18; 22.4 percent and 18.2 percent at ages 20 to 21; and 13.6 percent and 13.8 percent at ages 24 to 25.

At all ages, alcohol abuse or dependence was associated with a 1.9 times increased risk of major depression, said David M. Ferguson and colleagues at the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
"This analysis suggested that the best-fitting model was one in which there was a unidirectional association from alcohol abuse or dependence to major depression but no reverse effect from major depression to alcohol abuse or dependence," they wrote.

"The underlying mechanisms that give rise to such an association are unclear; however, it has been proposed that this link may arise from genetic processes in which the use of alcohol acts to trigger genetic markers that increase the risk of major depression. In addition, further research suggests that alcohol's depressant characteristics may lead to periods of depressed affect among those with alcohol abuse or dependence."
In addition, alcohol abuse may cause social, financial and legal problems that cause stress and increase the risk of depression, said the researchers, who added that further research is required to fully understand the connection between alcohol abuse and depression.

The study was published in the March issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Physiological Effects of Alcohol - Role in Depression

In this chapter, we will present several quotes by media and medical specialists related to the topic of discussion:
  • Alcohol has been found to lower serotonin and norepinephrine levels.
    {"Food and Mood," Natural Medicine Chest, Conquer Depression Without Drugs, Let's Live magazine, Jan. 2000}.
  • "Alcohol is a depressant. People with depression shouldn't drink alcohol", says Sherry Rogers, MD, in her 1997 book on "Depression." She says that studies show that doctors miss diagnosing over 66% of the people who are depressed. Alcohol temporarily blunts the effects of stress hormones. It typically leaves you feeling worse than ever because it depresses the brain and nervous system. One study looked at people who consumed one drink a day. After three months abstinence, their scores on standard depression inventories improved.
    {The Brain, "You Can Control Your Emotional Wellness," USA WEEKEND, Jan. 3, 1999, Jim Thorton, health reporter}.
  • People with manic-depressive disorder should not drink alcohol.
    {James F. Balch, MD, newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster, 1990}.
  • Although important for all ages, in older people folic acid deficiency contributes to aging brain processes and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Depression is also common in those with folate deficiency.
    {British Medical Journal, 2002}.
  • Andrew Weil, in his Self Healing newsletter (Jan. 2000) tells us alcohol use can lower levels of folic acid. The presence of alcohol hastens the breakdown of antioxidants in the blood, speeding their elimination from the body.
  • When alcohol wears off, you will be more depressed than ever.
    {Ann Landers' to readers, Dec. 5, 1993, as well as many other medical sources}
  • Depression and alcohol problems often go together, but the evidence suggests that in men alcohol use preceded the depression, whereas in women the depression precedes the alcohol use. {American Journal of Epidemiology, "Study Links Depression and Alcohol Problems," Washington Post Health, Dec. 16, 1997}.
Why Alcohol Might Cause Depression

Since alcohol is a known depressant, it stands to reason people with depression shouldn’t drink. This applies to people suffering from manic depression as well.

The depression caused by alcohol actually starts with your physical body. First, alcohol lowers the serotonin and norepinephrine levels in your brain. These chemicals are the chemicals that give you your good feelings - a feeling of well being, and they help you to feel normal. The anti-depressant drugs were designed build these chemicals back up.  After a long drinking career, since alcohol can take these brain chemicals down to ground zero, it can take a long time for the anti-depressants to bring these brain chemical levels back to where they need to be.

Alcohol also temporarily nullifies the effects of stress hormones. This is why after drinking you feel worse than ever, because alcohol depresses your nervous system and your brain. A study was done that followed people who were only drinking one drink a day and after these people stopped drinking for 3 months, their depression scores improved. And that is only at one drink a day, so it is easy to imagine the impact the kind of volume an alcoholic takes in every day can have.

Alcohol also wipes out vitamins from your system after a drinking session. A folic acid deficiency will contribute the brain aging and in older people, dementia. The folic acid deficiency also contributes to overall depression. Further, the alcohol in your system also breaks down and speeds the elimination of antioxidants in your blood. Antioxidants are critically important to our health because antioxidants fight free radicals and free radical damage causes diseases and aging. Our immune system actually creates the antioxidants which then neutralize the free radicals.

Alcohol can activate a gene that has been linked to depression and other mental issues.  The result of this activation can cause not only depression, but in extreme cases seizures, and manic depressive episodes.
It is still hard to figure out which came first - the depression or the drinking problem. But if the depression came first, drinking escalates the disastrous process. 

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Alcohol as Antidepressant

It is an urban myth, commonly accepted by a general public, that alcohol can be used as antidepressant. Are there any substantial facts in this statement? Probably, not. Alcohol is a depressant. Physically speaking, drinking makes you more depressed. Mentally speaking, alcohol may, at best, only provide limited a temporary relief from symptoms. If you're drunk you may be able to ignore your real life problems for limited period, while you are under influence. Yes, alcohol gives very limited and temporary relief. The depression will still be there the day after and added to that possibly a hangover or guilt/shame which might even worsen the depression. For some people, getting drunk may cause to think more about what's wrong in his or her life and perhaps be more honest than otherwise while sober. Drinking alcohol can also cause a person to deal with the depression by delving more into it, hopefully resolving it, as opposed to keeping it buried inside. However, this mild probability of the positive effect is completely overwhelmed by the possible negative consequences.

Alcohol Mixing with Antidepressant Drugs

If you already taking medications for depression treatment you should think twice, before mixing it with alcohol. Actually, most of the antidepressants have a warning note on the package asking not to consume, while you take them. What are the potential problems you might experience?

A few things might happen if you mix antidepressants and alcohol:

  • You may feel more depressed. Alcohol can worsen depression symptoms, so by drinking it, you could counteract effects of your medication and lessen its benefit.
  • You may become more intoxicated than usual. Some antidepressants may cause you to feel more intoxicated than normal when combined with alcohol, which can impair your judgment and ability to drive or do other tasks that require focus and attention.
  • The side effects from your medication may worsen. Some antidepressants cause drowsiness, and so does alcohol. Mixing the two could make you sleepy, which is dangerous in situations where you need to be alert.
  • Deadly reactions can occur with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Examples of MAOIs include isocarboxazid (Marplan) phenelzine (Nardil) and tranylcypromine (Parnate). When combined with certain types of beverages and foods, these antidepressants can cause a dangerous spike in blood pressure, leading to a stroke. If you take an MAOI, be sure you know what's safe to eat and drink, and which alcoholic beverages can cause a reaction.

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