If you have a mental health condition and are considering starting a new medication, you may have questions about how this medicine will affect your lifestyle. You may be even more curious to learn about the safety of drinking alcohol if you are already taking medication for a mental health condition. Sometimes, combining alcohol with medication does not affect how it works. However, this is not always the case. When combining mental health medications and alcohol, it’s imperative to be informed about the side effects, which can be dangerous.
One of the most commonly prescribed medications for mental health conditions is Lexapro, which has a generic form known as escitalopram. If you have a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety, you may be considering starting Lexapro or already taking this medication. Lexapro and alcohol both affect your brain, so drinking while on Lexapro can put you at increased risk of side effects.
Here’s what you need to know about mixing Lexapro and alcohol and when you should talk to your doctor.
What Is Lexapro?
Lexapro (escitalopram) is in the class of mental health medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Other medications that are in the SSRI class include Prozac (fluoxetine), Celexa (citalopram), Paxil (paroxetine), and Zoloft (sertraline).
As an SSRI, Lexapro works by altering the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin that is present within your nervous system. Serotonin has many important jobs in your body. When it comes to your brain, scientists believe that changing the levels of serotonin can impact your emotions, mood, and stress responses, as well as processes related to addiction.
Why Is Lexapro Prescribed?
There are two typical mental health scenarios where a medical professional would consider starting you on a Lexapro prescription. The first is if you have a diagnosis of a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and the second is if you’ve been diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD).
Lexapro for Generalized Anxiety Disorder
When you have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), you may experience excessive worry on a chronic basis. To be diagnosed with the condition, a medical provider will want to know if you have been experiencing worrying that has caused you distress or impairment for at least six months. You may feel restless, nervous, easily fatigued, or irritable. You may have trouble concentrating or sleeping, and you may have increased muscle tension. Lexapro is FDA approved for treating generalized anxiety disorder.
Lexapro for Major Depressive Disorder
When you have depression, you may have an array of symptoms, such as low mood, loss of interest or enjoyment, reduced energy, weight changes, changes in libido, problems sleeping, poor concentration, or suicidal thoughts, among others. These symptoms will interfere with your daily life and make it difficult to function. To receive this diagnosis, your symptoms usually will have had to persist for more than two weeks. Lexapro is FDA approved for treating major depressive disorder.
Other Uses for Lexapro
Other situations in which Lexapro is sometimes prescribed are considered to be “off-label,” meaning that they are not the official indications for the medicine. However, if you are struggling with more than one mental health condition at a time, knowing the off-label usages of Lexapro may help your medical professional choose the treatment plan that has the most potential impact. Off-label uses of Lexapro include binge-eating disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, bulimia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Other conditions sometimes managed by Lexapro in an off-label capacity include premature ejaculation and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. It is also sometimes used to treat the hot flash symptoms associated with menopause.
What Are the Side Effects of Lexapro?
When medical professionals consider the side effects of a medication such as Lexapro, they tend to group them into two categories—significant adverse reactions and those that are less severe.
Significant adverse reactions of Lexapro include:
• Lexapro can sometimes cause someone with depression to have a manic episode, especially if they have bipolar disorder
• Lexapro can increase your risk of bleeding, especially if you are taking another medication to help with a bleeding disorder
• Using Lexapro is associated with an increased risk of breaking a bone
• Lexapro is associated with a condition known as hyponatremia, in which the salt content of your blood is too low
• Lexapro is associated with an eye condition known as acute angle-closure glaucoma
• Lexapro can prolong the electrical activity of your heart, a syndrome known as prolonged QT syndrome—this can predispose you to dangerous heart rhythms, especially if you are taking certain other medications as well.
• Lexapro can cause a syndrome known as serotonin syndrome, in which there is too much activation of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in severe symptoms including coma or seizure
• Lexapro can cause sexual dysfunction, including trouble with ejaculation, decreased libido, or a condition known as priapism
Other side effects of taking Lexapro include:
• Abdominal pain
Similar to other medications in the SSRI class, Lexapro prescriptions come with a black-box warning that it can potentially increase a person’s risk of developing suicidal thoughts and behavior, especially in young people. A medical professional considering prescribing medication like Lexapro must weigh the costs and benefits, and it’s vital for you as a patient to be part of the decision-making process.
What Happens When Alcohol Mixes With Lexapro?
Even though alcohol is not prescribed medication, it acts on your brain and other parts of your body just like a prescription drug. The effects of alcohol can be similar to antidepressants like Lexapro because they both affect your brain. Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it slows down some of the processes within your brain. Drinking alcohol with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as Lexapro, can potentiate, or increase, the individual impact of each substance. This can cause dangerous side effects, including increased fatigue, increased drowsiness, slowed movements or reflexes, and impaired decision making. Drinking alcohol can increase the side effects of Lexapro because they also are both broken down by your liver—if your liver is busy processing one substance, the other substance can linger in your bloodstream for longer, having more sustained effects.
For this reason, when you are feeling depressed or anxious, and your medical provider suggests starting Lexapro, they will counsel you to avoid mixing Lexapro and alcohol. You need to take this recommendation seriously and stop drinking to minimize your risk of harm.
When Mental Health Conditions Occur With Substance Abuse
If you are feeling depressed or anxious, you may have turned to alcohol consumption as a way to cope with your symptoms. You may even be wondering whether you can stop drinking alcohol, even when a medical provider cautions you that it may interact with your prescription medications. If you find that you cannot stop drinking even when you know that it may be causing you harm, you may be suffering from an alcohol use disorder.
Having an alcohol use disorder along with a mental health disorder is very common, and experts refer to this situation of simultaneous conditions as “co-occurring disorders.” According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are an estimated 9.2 million Americans who suffer from co-occurring disorders. You may feel like having depression and an alcohol use disorder is an impossible situation, because to treat the depression, you may need to start a medication like Lexapro that is not safe to take while you are still drinking. However, a certified and medically reviewed treatment plan can help you tackle both disorders head-on safely.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
If you are struggling with alcohol abuse and pursuing treatment for a mental health condition, it’s critical to discuss your concerns with your doctor. Do not accept a prescription medication if you don’t think you can safely take it and abstain from alcohol. Instead, make sure your doctor is aware of your substance abuse concerns so they can take your full situation into account. It’s also important to talk to your doctor if you begin experiencing side effects after starting a Lexapro prescription, especially if you are having an increase in depressive symptoms or suicidal thoughts.
How to Find Effective Treatment for Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions and Substance Use Disorders
When you’re struggling with a substance use disorder and a mental health condition at the same time, it can feel overwhelming. However, by fully addressing both conditions within the bounds of an evidence-based treatment program, you can receive the support you need to move forward and begin your recovery journey.
At The Haven New England, we have a specific dual diagnosis program to manage co-occurring conditions. Within this program, we help each of our patients develop an individualized treatment plan that takes into account their history of substance abuse, including alcohol abuse, as well as their mental health needs. This way, we can ensure that you have safe, effective, and comprehensive resources to support you in your goal of achieving a life free from addiction while also balancing your mental health needs. We offer detox and residential treatment, as well as aftercare planning to ensure that you have help sustaining your sobriety after completing your treatment.
To learn more, contact us today.