Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

While many people use alcohol to relax, they also rely on it to energize them in social situations, reduce their inhibitions and help them feel more confident. Therefore, many people think that alcohol is a stimulant. While it does stimulate the nervous system, especially in the initial stages of intoxication, alcohol is a depressant.


Why Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

Drugs are categorized by their predominant effects. Experts refer to substances as stimulants or depressants based on how the chemicals affect the nervous system. But alcohol has different effects at different times, making you wonder, “Is alcohol a stimulant or depressant?

Alcohol Does Have Stimulating Effects

Stimulants accelerate and intensify the central nervous system’s function. They speed up the chemical messages that are transmitted between the brain and body. Stimulants typically produce the following effects:

  • Alertness
  • Energy
  • Confidence
  • Euphoria
  • Motivation
  • Increased endurance
  • Elevated heart rate, body temperature, and respiration

If you have ever gotten a rush of adrenaline, euphoria, or self-confidence while using alcohol, you know that the substance can hype you up. That’s because alcohol does have some excitatory effects.

When you consume alcohol, your blood vessels dilate. This results in decreased blood pressure. Your heart has to pump harder to deal with this temporary state. A few alcoholic drinks typically increase your respiration rate too.

Alcohol also amplifies the release of dopamine in your central nervous system. With elevated dopamine levels, you’ll feel more energetic and motivated. Furthermore, the dopamine increase in your body’s reward pathways delivers an amplified feeling of happiness and ease.

Most people like how this feels and continue drinking to get those dopamine hits. However, the disruption in your reward pathways only lasts so long. Eventually, the depressant effects of alcohol take over.

The Depressant Effects of Alcohol

As alcohol increases dopamine levels, it also acts on other neurotransmitters that are responsible for excitation and relaxation. Consuming the substance reduces the effects of glutamate, a stimulating neurotransmitter. Glutamate helps the central nervous system send speedy and efficient messages throughout the body. Suppressing it results in a reduced capacity for learning, impaired memory, and poor sleep.

Alcohol also increases the effects of GABA, a relaxing neurotransmitter. Elevated levels of GABA reduce your nervous system’s ability to relay information. At first, increasing the effects of GABA enhances your alertness and mental clarity as fear and anxiety dissipate. But continuing to drink perpetuates GABA’s calming effects, slowing down your central nervous system.

Some signs of alcohol’s depressant effects include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Erratic movements
  • Reduced ability to think rationally
  • Mental confusion

Are All Alcoholic Drinks Depressants?

A popular myth suggests that certain types of alcohol, such as tequila, are stimulants. However, all alcoholic drinks are depressants.

You may feel like your experience contradicts this fact. When you consume tequila or other hard liquors, you may feel more uninhibited and energetic than you do when you drink beer. This is likely to happen due to the high alcohol content. Your blood alcohol level rises quickly, making the excitatory effects come on quickly and intensely.

But the post-peak effects are the same as with any alcoholic drink. You’ll eventually begin demonstrating signs of a system slowdown, including withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking.

Does Alcohol Cause Depression?

The term depressant refers to alcohol’s effects on the central nervous system. It slows down or depresses many of your body’s natural processes. Although its categorization as a depressant doesn’t refer to alcohol’s effect on your mood, the substance is associated with psychological depression.

Some people experience a low mood after one drinking session. Whether or not they wake up with a hangover, they may feel apathetic, lethargic, and somber after drinking. Depressive side effects increase with heavy alcohol use.

The dysfunction that alcohol causes in your body’s chemicals take time to get back to normal. That happens because your body reduces its natural neurotransmitter production, relying on alcohol for regulation. Although you may have felt great at the peak of your intoxication, you often feel worse when the effects wear off. If your alcohol use is heavy or consistent, it can lead to long-term central nervous system damage, which can cause or exacerbate depression.

But the link between alcohol and depression is cyclical. While alcohol changes the brain to make it more susceptible to mood disorders, it also exacerbates existing psychological issues. In fact, people who exhibit signs of depression are at an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorder. Many people use alcohol to cope with the distressing emotions associated with mood disorders. Although this practice might feel like it helps, it keeps your brain chemicals off-balance and perpetuates the effects of alcohol and depression.

Some other reasons that drinking alcohol contributes to depression include the following:

  • It interferes with your sleep cycle.
  • It prevents you from accessing healthy coping mechanisms.
  • It strengthens the intensity of existing emotions.
  • It may cause you to isolate yourself to hide the behavior.
  • It can lead to regret and other negative consequences after engaging in high-risk or uncharacteristic behaviors while you’re intoxicated.

The Dangers of Depressants

Alcohol is only one example of a depressant. Other drugs in this category include benzodiazepines, hypnotics, and barbiturates.

When taken in small doses, these substances are relaxing. However, taking large amounts of these drugs can sedate you completely. Consuming multiple depressants at the same time compounds the dangerous effects. Combining benzos or other depressants with alcohol can have life-threatening consequences, including the following:

  • Accidents
  • Severe depression
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Dependence or addiction
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Lack of coordination
  • Kidney failure
  • Heart failure
  • Coma
  • Overdose

Quitting depressants cold turkey isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Once your body is dependent on alcohol, you need more than willpower to stop using it. Your brain and body come to rely on alcohol as a substitute for certain neurotransmitters. As a result, you stop making the chemicals that your body needs to function optimally.

When you stop using a depressant, you stop giving your body what it thinks it needs. Your system responds with processes that activate the neurotransmitters in an attempt to establish homeostasis.

But if you’ve been drinking heavily or frequently, your central nervous system is used to being depressed. Reactivating it can cause dangerous health effects, such as:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Uncontrolled agitation or anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens
  • Suicidal thoughts

Finding Treatment for Alcohol Dependence and Addiction

If your alcohol use is causing problems with your physical, mental, emotional, and interpersonal wellness, you can improve your chances of long-term recovery by seeking treatment. The first step is to eliminate the alcohol from your system. Other steps in your treatment plan won’t work if alcohol continues to influence your central nervous system.

But it’s difficult to go through detox and withdrawal on your own. If you have alcohol dependence or addiction, you may need medication-assisted treatment to help you stay safe as you rid your body of the alcohol.

The depressant effects of alcohol usually stick around after detox. This is an excellent time to delve deeper. Treating the alcohol use disorder and any co-occurring mental health disorders together will improve your likelihood of success.

A comprehensive treatment plan addresses the underlying causes of substance abuse and educates you about addiction and other mental health disorders. It also encourages you to develop healthy ways of coping with intense emotions, psychological issues, and personal problems.

At Garden State Treatment Center, we offer a wide variety of therapies so that we can customize your treatment plan. Our team of professionals is dedicated to helping men and women create a fulfilling life in recovery. Contact us to learn more about our addiction treatment and relapse prevention programs.


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