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Updated on November 2, 2021

Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

Alcohol is a depressant but can be mildly stimulating as well. Consumed in small quantities, it can increase energy, decrease inhibitions, and increase heart rate.

As more alcohol is consumed, it slows your body down, and its depressant effects become more apparent.

Stimulants vs. Depressants: How They Affect Your Body

Alcohol affects your brain function and central nervous system (CNS). Both stimulants and depressants do this, but they do it in different ways.

Stimulants, also known as "uppers," are substances that increase CNS activity. They make a person feel more energetic and alert.

Examples of stimulants include amphetamines, caffeine, and cocaine.

Side effects of stimulants include:

  • Excitement in the nervous system
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Increase in heart rate
  • Jittery feeling
  • Talkative
  • Elevated mood

Depressants, on the other hand, are substances that slow down CNS activity. They are known as "downers."

Unlike stimulants, depressants make a person feel relaxed and sleepy. When strong enough, they can have sedative effects.

Prescription depressants are used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Benzodiazepines, barbiturates, ketamine, cannabis, and heroin are examples of depressants. 

Side effects of depressants include:

  • Decreased heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Feelings of relaxation

It's thought that there is one additional category, which is where we find alcohol. This category includes drugs classified as either stimulants or depressants, but which produce the effects of both.

Alcohol is considered a depressant, but it triggers side effects that are both stimulating and depressing.

Nicotine also falls into this category. It’s categorized as a stimulant, but it also has depressant effects because it relaxes you.

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Why is Alcohol Mistaken as a Stimulant? 

Some people think that alcohol is a stimulant because, in low doses, it has a stimulating effect. It can increase heart rate, makes people more impulsive and aggressive, and causes a surge in dopamine levels.

The feeling you get when drinking is alcohol mimicking the naturally occurring gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain. This is a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of relaxation and improves your mood.

Alcohol also causes the brain to release dopamine, which is the hormone that triggers feelings of happiness. It causes you to feel energized.

This release of dopamine occurs when you first start drinking, which makes alcohol seem like it’s a stimulant.

The stimulating effects of alcohol occur when your BAC nears .05mg/l but ease once your BAC nears .08 mg/l. That’s when the depressant effects kick in.

When someone reaches a BAC of 0.8 varies depending on factors such as weight, sex, type of alcohol, and how much food they've eaten.

There is evidence that some people experience a greater stimulant effect from alcohol. Many researchers believe this puts them at a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD).

How Does Alcohol Affect Behavior?

Alcohol eases inhibitions. It makes people more talkative and reduces self-control.

As both a stimulant and depressant, alcohol makes people more careless. It interferes with how the brain works and makes it more difficult to think clearly and coordinate physical actions. This is one of the reasons why driving while intoxicated is so dangerous.

Alcohol makes people more likely to take risks while at the same time slowing their reflexes and coordination. It also causes many people to act more aggressively.

People who have AUD are prone to mental and behavioral changes, including:

  • Inability to set limits on alcohol consumption
  • Inability to quit drinking, even if they want to
  • Cravings

How Does Alcohol Affect Mental Health?

Alcohol affects mental health in a variety of ways, including:

  • Impairing judgment
  • Lowering inhibitions
  • Interfering with memory (blackout amnesia)
  • Diminishing impulse control

At first, someone drinking might feel relaxed and at ease, but over time will feel:

  • Anxious
  • Restless
  • Confused
  • Disoriented

Heavy drinkers experience fluctuations in levels of chemicals like GABA and dopamine in their brains.

Long-term, this leads to dependence. The brain adapts and no longer performs as it did when it was healthy.

If you or a loved one has developed AUD, alcohol withdrawal will occur if and when they stop drinking. Withdrawal includes a variety of mental health symptoms, including:

  • Rapid mood fluctuations
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of mental clarity
  • Memory loss

Over time, substance misuse of all kinds, whether the drug in question is a stimulant or depressant, damages health.

Common Questions and Answers

Is any alcohol a stimulant?

No. But smaller amounts of alcohol produce stimulating effects.

What kind of stimulant effects does alcohol have?

Small amounts of alcohol cause the brain to increase dopamine production. 

This leads to euphoria, increased sociability ("chattiness"), and boosted confidence. Some people refer to this feeling as a "buzz."

Does alcohol kill serotonin?

Alcohol triggers a burst of serotonin when it is first introduced into the system. Once this initial euphoria wears off, serotonin levels drop significantly below what they were before the person began drinking.

Does alcohol increase heart rate?

Yes. This is one of the reasons alcohol is mistaken as a stimulant. Alcohol has a significant effect on the cardiovascular system.

Over time, excessive drinking leads to chronically elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, and irregular heartbeat.

If alcohol is a depressant, does it cause depression?

The "depressant" effects of alcohol refer to alcohol's effect on the central nervous system and not on a person's mood. However, depression increases the risk of substance abuse.

Some people diagnosed with depression turn to alcohol for its stimulating effects. For this reason, depression and AUD often go together.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

Here are some of the best treatment options for alcohol use disorder (AUD):

Inpatient programs 

Inpatient treatment is an option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days. However, they can be longer in some instances.

Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)

Partial hospitalization programs are also called intensive outpatient programs or IOPs. They're like inpatient programs, but you return home after each session.

Outpatient programs

Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They're best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety.

Medication-assisted therapy (MAT)

Certain people qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detox, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions.

MAT is most effective when combined with other treatment therapies.

Support groups

Support groups are peer-led groups that help people stay sober. They can be a first step in overcoming alcoholism or a component of an aftercare plan.

Many of them follow the 12-step approach. However, there are also secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach.

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Resources

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  1. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 14 Sept. 2011.
  2. Hendler, Reuben A, et al. “Stimulant and Sedative Effects of Alcohol,” Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, vol. 13, 2013, pp. 489–509.
  3. Steele, C M, and L Southwick. “Alcohol and social behavior I: The psychology of drunken excess,” Journal of personality and social psychology vol. 48,1 : 18-34. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.48.1.18.
  4. "How Alcohol Affects Your Body," Better Health Channel.
  5. Pia Mäkelä, Kirsimarja Raitasalo, Kristian Wahlbeck, "Mental health and alcohol use: a cross-sectional study of the Finnish general population," European Journal of Public Health, Volume 25, Issue 2, April 2015, Pages 225–231.
  6. Sullivan, Edith et al., "Alcohol's Effects on Brain and Behavior," Alcohol Research & Health, 2010; 33(1-2): pp. 127-143.
  7.  

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