Mixing antidepressants and alcohol: is it safe?

Exploring the relationship between antidepressants and alcohol: what you need to know.

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In today’s fast-paced world, mental health is a topic that touches lots of people's lives. Antidepressant medication, designed to help people manage conditions like depression and anxiety, is commonly prescribed to help people cope with these challenges.

If you’re taking antidepressants for your mental health, you might be wondering about whether these medications are compatible with alcohol. Here, we’ll aim to answer some important questions when it comes to drinking while on antidepressants.

Can you drink on antidepressants?

One of the most common questions that people ask when discussing antidepressants is whether it’s safe to enjoy a drink while taking these medications. The answer, like many aspects of mental health treatment, isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Generally speaking, mixing alcohol and antidepressants isn’t advisable. The consequences are unpredictable and can be influenced by a number of factors, including:

  • The type of antidepressant you’re taking
  • Your individual tolerance to alcohol
  • How much alcohol you drink

While some people might be able to tolerate moderate drinking with certain antidepressants, it’s important to understand that there are a number of risks involved.

Increased intoxication

Antidepressants, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can affect how your body processes alcohol. Mixing SSRIs and alcohol can make the effects of alcohol more intense – meaning you get drunk quicker and more easily. This increased intoxication can lead to impaired judgement and co-ordination, which can put you at risk of having an accident or injuring yourself.

Worsening of mental health symptoms

Alcohol is a depressant, which means it can counteract the medication’s intended effects. While alcohol might improve your mood in the short-term, it can prevent the antidepressant from working as well as it should in the long-term, especially if you drink every day. This can have a detrimental impact on your mood and may increase symptoms of depression or anxiety. It also puts you at risk of becoming alcohol-dependent, especially if you’re drinking as a form of additional self-medication to alleviate your symptoms.

Unpredictable individual differences

The effects of combining alcohol and antidepressants can also vary from person-to-person, based on individual factors. What’s a moderate and safe amount to drink on antidepressants for one person, might be risky for another. Also, some people might experience more intense side effects when mixing alcohol and antidepressants. These can include nausea, dizziness or drowsiness.

Dangerous reactions

When you drink alcohol with a certain class of antidepressants, known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), this can cause a dangerous spike in your blood pressure. This can increase your risk of having a stroke, which can be fatal. Also, mixing alcohol and antidepressants can cause toxicity in the liver, meaning that the liver can’t process these toxins. This can cause long-term damage to your liver and, in some cases, can be fatal.

In light of these factors, it’s crucial that you speak to your GP or another healthcare professional if you want to drink while you’re taking antidepressants. They’ll be able to give you personalised guidance based on your specific medication, medical history and mental health needs.

How much alcohol can you drink while on antidepressants?

Determining how much alcohol is safe to drink while taking antidepressants is a topic that needs careful consideration. There’s no universal answer, as it depends on individual factors and the type of medication you’re taking.

While some healthcare professionals say that you can drink up to one or two alcoholic beverages per day while you’re taking antidepressants, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Some people might tolerate small amounts of alcohol without adverse effects, but it’s important to understand that even a single drink can interact with your medication and leave you feeling worse in the long run. Consider why you’re taking the medication in the first place. If you’re using it to manage conditions like depression or anxiety, the risks of drinking may outweigh any perceived benefits.

The key to making an informed decision lies in your body’s response to alcohol, in combination with your body’s response to the antidepressant. If you’re someone who tends to get drunk quickly, then taking antidepressants is likely to intensify this. If you’re experiencing antidepressant side effects, such as dizziness, drowsiness and being less alert, then it’s likely that drinking alcohol will only make these worse.

If you do decide to drink while on antidepressants, it’s advisable that you do so slowly and make sure you eat some food while you’re drinking to mitigate the effects of the alcohol.

Again, it’s really important to discuss alcohol consumption honestly with a medical professional. They can provide tailored guidance based on your unique situation and help you make an informed decision about how much, if any, alcohol is safe for you to drink while on antidepressants. Ultimately, it’s important that you try to strike a balance that promotes your overall health, safety and efficacy of your medication.

What happens when you drink alcohol with antidepressants?

The interaction between alcohol and antidepressants is complex and unique to everyone. However, you might experience the following if you mix alcohol with antidepressants:

  • Increased intoxication – antidepressants can intensify the effects of alcohol, meaning that you get drunk quicker and after smaller amounts. This can impair your co-ordination, alertness and judgement, increasing the risk of accidents. You may also be more likely to experience alcohol blackouts when you mix alcohol and antidepressants. This is when you have no recollection of things that happened while you were drunk. Blackouts can be dangerous, upsetting and may lead to risky behaviours
  • Unpredictable interactions – not only does the interaction between alcohol and antidepressants vary from person-to-person, it might also vary from time-to-time. You might find that alcohol didn’t affect you in an adverse way on one occasion, but the next time you drink, you might experience a number of negative effects. Therefore, you never really know for sure how your body is going to react when you mix alcohol and antidepressants
  • Mental health effects – alcohol disrupts sleep patterns and can worsen mental health symptoms, making you feel more anxious and depressed. For people taking antidepressants to manage these conditions, this interaction can cancel out any benefits, and leave you feeling worse than before. It can also make these conditions more difficult to treat

When it comes to the interaction between alcohol and antidepressants, it’s essential to prioritise your wellbeing. While some people might tolerate moderate alcohol consumption with certain antidepressants, the risks and effects can be unpredictable.

If you’re unsure about whether it’s safe for you to drink while on antidepressants, or have concerns about your mental health, the best thing you can do is seek help and guidance. Remember, it’s always better to reach out for support; your wellbeing matters and there’s help available if you need it.

Page clinically reviewed by Dee Johnson (Mbacp, MNCS), Addiction Therapist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford.

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