Alcohol and your mental health

By  Youth Projects     |    Updated: 17th May, 2017    |    5 min read

What is alcohol?

Alcoholic drinks are the result of fermentation in which water and yeast act on the sugars of various types of grains, vegetables and fruits. Ethyl alcohol, the active ingredient in alcoholic drinks, is a drug that acts as a depressant to your central nervous system. This causes your body to function at a slower rate than when not affected.

Standard Drinks

A standard drink contains 10 grams of pure alcohol. One standard drink is:

  • Beer (.9 – 6% alcohol) 375 ml
  • Table wine (12 – 14% alcohol) 100ml
  • Fortified Wine: Sherry, Port (18 – 20% alcohol) 60mls
  • Spirits (40 – 50%) alcohol 30ml

How does Alcohol affect you?

Gender, age, mental health, drug use, and existing medical conditions can change how alcohol affects you. Responsible drinking is about balancing your enjoyment of alcohol with the potential risks and harms that may arise from drinking, especially if you go beyond low risk drinking levels.

Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach and the small intestine. Consuming alcohol may cause you to do things you wouldn’t do when sober. The immediate effects of drinking alcohol can produce a wide range of feelings, emotions and behaviours, depending on the amount consumed. Effects such as, feeling relaxed, more confident, and sometimes happier are most common.

Alcohol and your Mental Health

There is clear evidence that drinking above recommended levels can impact on your mental health.

If you or your family have a history of psychosis and consume alcohol you may become more confused and disorganised, and you are more likely to hear or see things that are not happening.

Drinking alcohol increases the likelihood and severity of mood swings and, for people who suffer from depression, excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of suicide and self-harm. Drinking alcohol can also increase your risk of unwanted or unsafe sex, assault and problems with the law.

There is considerable evidence to indicate that people with a mental health problem are more likely to have an alcohol misuse or dependence problem. Alcohol misuse is itself a causal factor in a number of mental health conditions including alcoholic psychosis, alcohol dependence syndrome and alcohol related dementia.

People with significant alcohol dependence have reported that alcohol helps to reduce their anxiety however, while alcohol consumption may bring some relief from anxiety, depression or stress in the short term, it can worsen moods in the longer term, especially with continued drinking over two days or more, and/or at higher levels of consumption.

Alcohol and other drugs

Alcohol in combination with any other drug can be dangerous. The effects of the drugs may be increased or unpredictable, and may make you ill.

Taking alcohol with benzodiazepines (e.g. valium) or opiates (e.g. heroin or methadone) can increase the risk of overdose or even death. Alcohol on its own can cause death if consumed in very high doses.
The effect of some drug and alcohol combinations may cause drowsiness and reduce the ability to carry out simple tasks. The effects of some drugs (eg. antibiotics) can be neutralized and therefore ineffective.

Alcohol and pregnancy

Alcohol intoxication, where there are high peak levels of alcohol in the blood stream, may negatively affect the foetus. This can lead to Foetal Alcohol Syndrome as well as the baby experiencing withdrawal symptoms upon birth.

Possible complications include miscarriages, stillbirth and premature birth. There is no safe level of drinking during pregnancy.

What happens when you stop drinking alcohol?

The onset of alcohol withdrawal begins within 6-24 hours of your last drink, and in heavily dependent people withdrawal may begin even when there are still high levels of alcohol in the bloodstream.
Withdrawal times vary between 2-12 days. Severe alcohol withdrawal can be life threatening however, most alcohol withdrawal syndromes are over in 72 hours from the last drink. Alcohol withdrawals should always be carried out with medical support or in a supervised setting.

Withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Agitation
  • MILD: Tremors (shakes) SEVERE: Delirium tremens
  • Sweats
  • May experience visual hallucinations
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhoea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting
  • Poor appetite
  • Hot and cold flushes
  • Un-medicated withdrawal can lead to shock in the body and in some instances, death

Alcohol related harm to young people

Early use can increase alcohol dependence later in life. Alcohol does less harm at age 21 than at age 18. Each year, almost 2000 people under the age of 21 years die in car crashes in which underage drinking is involved. Alcohol is involved in nearly half of all violent deaths involving teens. Teens that drink are more likely to engage in sexual activity, have unprotected sex, or have sex with a stranger. Binge drinking can lead to impaired brain function.

  • Prolonged drinking can lead to:
  • Problems in your relationships
  • Disturbing thoughts
  • Aggression and violence
  • Health problems
  • Paranoia
  • Loss of confidence

Reducing the harms of alcohol use

Low risk drinking is considered to be:

  • 2 standard drinks per day for men and women.
  • No more than 4 standard drinks in a single drinking session.
  • Have at least two alcohol-free days per week.

Other ways to reduce harm:

  • Do not drink and drive
  • Eat a good meal prior to drinking
  • Drink non-alcoholic drinks in between alcoholic drinks such as soft drinks, water or juice
  • Sip slowly rather than drink fast
  • Finish your glass before getting a top up so you can keep track of how much you drink
  • Try to stay with people you trust
  • Always carry condoms and lube if there is any chance you may have sex

Also check the related topics:  

Alcohol Grog and Other Drugs

Factsheet provided by Youth Projects


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