The Connection Between Alcohol Detox and Mental Health

Dr. Ximena Sanchez-Samper

Ximena Sanchez-Samper, MD is a Board- Certified Addiction Psychiatrist who obtained her degree as a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and completed her Addictions Fellowship through the combined Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital / Brigham and Women’s Hospital Addictions Fellowship program in 2004.

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The Connection Between Alcohol Detox and Mental Health

Often, an alcohol disorder develops when the person uses alcohol to cope with their own mental health symptoms. When the individual begins to seek treatment such as
alcohol detox, the state of their mental health can play a large part in their experience in

Are you seeking more information about the relationship between an alcohol use disorder and mental health? Are you unsure how you or a loved one’s mental health will fare as you seek treatment? Please keep reading to learn how mental health affects alcohol addiction and its treatment.

What is Alcohol Addiction and Detox?

Those with an alcohol use disorder experience a compulsion to drink and preoccupation with alcohol. Detox is the process that allows the removal of alcohol from the body, often the first step in recovery. Those with an alcohol use disorder can struggle to stop drinking, despite their best efforts. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a “treatable, chronic medical
disease…People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become
compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”

Detox is the first step in recovery, providing a safe place for the individual to abstain from alcohol and go through the withdrawal process. This is often done through an inpatient treatment center, where individuals can be closely monitored for any worsening withdrawal symptoms.

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is our social, emotional, and psychological health or well-being. Our mental health
affects every aspect of our lives and can determine the kind of choices we make. There is a
wide range of mental health conditions that can afflict us, just like physical health conditions.
Mental health can change from childhood to adulthood, for a multitude of reasons. Due to our
mental health’s great effect on our well-being, it’s important for individuals to take great care of
their mental health.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Alcohol is a depressant, and depressants slow down activity in your central nervous system. This makes you feel sedated. Though alcohol can offer some initial stimulant effects in beginning doses, like increased dopamine, the “happy hormone,” it is still largely a depressant. Depressants affect dopamine and serotonin production, and as the dosage increases, it will
actually begin to suppress them. Some other depressant side effects are drowsiness, slower reaction times, and feeling disoriented. Over time, alcohol abuse will change your brain, reducing the number of important neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, play a key part in our mental health. When these numbers are reduced, it often creates a cycle of dependence on alcohol.  After a night of heavy drinking, during the hangover, your body can experience depression and/or anxiety. If you are someone who already struggles with anxiety or depression, this state will only exacerbate them.

The Connection Between an Alcohol Use Disorder and Mental Health

The clear connection between an alcohol use disorder and mental health shows that those who struggle with this disease are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. When a mental health disorder and substance use disorder occur at the same time it’s called dual diagnosis. Studies have shown that many of those struggling with alcohol use disorder also suffer from a
mental illness disorder. With a dual diagnosis, the symptoms of the mental health disorder and alcohol use disorder often feed off one another.

Some of the most common mental health disorders associated with alcohol use disorder are:

  • Depression. Some people who suffer from depression may try to self-medicate their mood disorder with alcohol, relying on the initial boost of dopamine from drinking to cope. Over time, the body will learn to rely on this boost as a main form of dopamine.
  • Anxiety. Those who suffer from anxiety often suffer from racing thoughts, heart rates, and general feelings of panic. The sedating effects of alcohol can be very attractive to those with anxiety. They may become too dependent on the relaxing effect of alcohol.
  • Bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder comes in varied forms but is generalized as intermittent mood swings that can fluctuate greatly in the highs and lows. Due to the depressive lows, an individual can experience, it is not uncommon for those with bipolar
    disorder to self-medicate with alcohol.

Mental Health During Alcohol Detox

Mental health can fluctuate during the journey to recovery, and withdrawal symptoms during detox can include mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression. An individual’s body will experience cravings, and resisting these urges can take a great toll mentally and physically. Having a support plan in place during this vulnerable part of an individual’s recovery can be invaluable, and treatment centers can offer varied levels of support that are customized to an individual’s needs. Over time, and through an individual’s recovery process, their brain will begin to regenerate neurotransmitters that it once relied on alcohol for. Dopamine and serotonin production will increase, providing an improvement in mental health for many individuals with alcohol abuse

Support During Detox

Due to the severity of mental health symptoms, one can experience during alcohol detox, it is important to seek out the support of medical professionals, counselors, and trusted family and friends. Many treatment centers offer treatment and care for those suffering from a dual diagnosis, providing a customized plan tailored to their specific needs. Medical professionals can offer
support through medication-assisted recovery, which can help lessen the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. Counselors can also provide a vital role in an individual’s recovery process, helping those suffering from mental health symptoms by giving them tools to cope with life’s stressors. Family and friends’ support is also invaluable in recovery.


Understanding the way mental health is connected to alcohol detox can help you or a loved one in recovery thrive. Through careful treatment for dual diagnosis and sustained ongoing support, anyone can begin their journey to sobriety.