November 8, 2021 AlcoholMental Health

Will Quitting Alcohol Improve My Mental Health?

Have you ever thought about giving up alcohol? For many people, the thought has crossed their minds more than once. Ridding your body of alcohol can have many physical health benefits, including better liver health, better heart health, and better brain function, among many others. Giving up alcohol can also help your immune system, making it easier to ward off any infections that come your way.

However, beyond just the physical benefits, research has shown that a life without alcohol may have additional benefits in the form of improved mental health. If you’ve ever thought about how giving up alcohol might have mental health benefits, read on to learn more.

How Alcohol and Mental Health Are Interlinked

Heavy drinking often leads to anxiety depression nervopusness agitation mood swings and nightmares

In today’s world, you don’t have to look far to see the relationship between alcohol and mental health. Alcohol is marketed as a badge of celebration (cue the champagne bottles being sprayed around after a sporting championship) and as a solution to many of life’s problems (cue the wine-fueled girls’ night after a bad breakup). Alcohol can sometimes feel omnipresent, a constant companion whether you feel up, down, or somewhere in between.

Beyond cultural associations, however, there is a deeper truth that underlies alcohol and mental health. This is the fact that many people who suffer from alcohol use disorder also suffer from an underlying mental health condition. It’s often difficult to untangle which affliction precedes which, as many times they seem to develop together.

Mental health professionals often refer to mental health conditions that accompany an alcohol use disorder (and other substance use disorders) as “co-occurring conditions.” People specializing in addiction medicine understand that the two conditions can co-exist and fuel each other and that neither can get extinguished without fully recognizing and addressing both with evidence-based treatment protocols.

How Quitting Alcohol May Improve Mental Health

Even though researchers have attempted for years to decipher the exact mechanisms at play when it comes to the relationship between heavy alcohol consumption and mental health, there is still a lot that is unknown. Some point to the way that alcohol can affect the volume of the brain tissue and also to the way that it can affect the same neurotransmitters that are involved in modifying emotional states.

However, even as the actual mechanism gets investigated, the relationship between alcohol use and mental health is clarified. Additional research shows that people treated for an alcohol dependency show a decline in symptoms of poor mental health after abstaining for a period, which means that quitting alcohol may be a primary way to improve mental health.

Recent Study Shows Alcohol Consumption’s Impact on Mental Health

It is relatively easy to understand how heavy drinkers are more vulnerable to experiencing decreased mental health and mental well-being. Drinking alcohol heavily can cause unwanted consequences in a person’s life, negatively impacting their psychological state. And, conversely, if a person is feeling particularly low, they may begin drinking more heavily. However, beyond the level of alcohol abuse, alcohol consumption itself may affect our mental well-being far more than we realize, even at low or moderate drinking levels.

One recent study has drawn attention when it comes to highlighting alcohol’s impact on mental health. Researchers in Hong Kong evaluated two groups of participants over four years, asking them at different points in time to rate their level of well-being (using a validated scale) and also to quantify their alcohol consumption patterns. The researchers found that the people who had the highest levels of mental well-being during the study period were the people who had abstained from alcohol use altogether.

However, even more interesting was the fact that people who had stopped using alcohol during the study increased their levels of mental well-being that began to approach those of the abstainers. For people considering what impact cutting back on alcohol may have on their mental health, this offers very optimistic news.

Evaluating Heavy Drinking’s Effect on Mental Health

Abstaining from alcohol altogether appears to have a positive impact on mental health. However, for some people, abstaining from alcohol may feel like an impossible task. If this sounds familiar to you, it may be worthwhile to evaluate some of the alcohol-related behaviors that appear to be most detrimental when it comes to your mental health.

Binge drinking, for example, has been associated with increased rates of psychological distress and poorer life satisfaction. In one study, researchers evaluating binge drinking found that men who drank eight or more drinks and women who drank five or more drinks in two hours had decreased markers of mental health. The researchers also found that the more heavily the study participants drank, the worse the assessment of their mental health became.

If you have been finding that you are using heavy drinking or binge drinking as a way of escaping from life’s daily stresses, you’re not alone. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 25.8 percent of adults reported binge drinking in the past month. Per the NIAAA’s criteria, binge drinking refers to a woman consuming four or more drinks in about two hours and a man consuming five or more drinks in the same period.

Quitting Alcohol Once and for All

If you’re worried about how alcohol may be impacting your mental health, consider letting go of alcohol. Not only could abstaining from alcohol boost your mental health, but it may also simplify your life if you take medications for a mental health condition. That is because alcohol and many prescription medications used for mental health conditions should not get combined.

If the mere practice of considering quitting alcohol gives you pause, you may want to evaluate your underlying reasoning. Many people who are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, find the prospect of a life without alcohol to be simultaneously enticing and also impossible. It can be terrifying to have these feelings, as well as having the sensation that you are out of control of your own life and that alcohol is making your choices for you.

Alcohol use disorder is a mental health issue that can affect your physical health and psychological well-being. If you think you may have an alcohol use disorder, use the following list of symptoms, adapted from the NIAAA, to do a personal check-in:

In the past 12 months, have you:

  • Wound up drinking more alcohol than you intended to or for a longer period than you’d originally planned?
  • Felt compelled to cut back on your drinking or stop drinking (or even tried to) but couldn’t?
  • Occupied a lot of time drinking or recovering from the side effects of drinking?
  • Been concerned with intense thoughts about wanting to drink?
  • Experienced an illness, family problems, job problems, or school problems because of your drinking?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Cut other non-drinking activities to free up more time to drink?
  • Acted recklessly due to your drinking (e.g., drove after drinking, walked in a dangerous area, or engaged in unsafe sexual behavior)?
  • Continued drinking even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or making another health problem worse?
  • Increased the amount that you were drinking to get the desired effect?
  • Found that as the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you were having alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, or a racing heartbeat?

If you’ve personally identified with many, or even a few, of these signs of an alcohol use disorder, it may be time to ask for help. Cutting back on your alcohol to improve your mental health is an excellent goal, but if you’re addicted to alcohol, it can be extremely difficult to do on your own. A structured rehab program can connect you with the most effective resources available to quit alcohol. After you’ve quit, a local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting can help you sustain your sobriety.

Finding Support for an Alcohol Use Disorder

For people struggling with alcohol addiction, the prospect of stopping drinking may feel daunting. If you have ever stopped drinking on your own or tried to stop, then you know what uncomfortable short-term side effects lie ahead if you try to rehabilitate on your own without structured support.

A structured rehab program can help you safely detox from alcohol and then begin putting the pieces of your life back together, one by one. You may find that when you quit alcohol once and for all, you also experience a long-term boost in your mental health that sends positive ripples into other aspects of your life.