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Updated on September 22, 2021

Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

Alcohol is a depressant, but it often feels as if it has a stimulating effect. Some consider it a false stimulant because initially, it increases energy, decreases inhibitions, and increases heart rate. But ultimately, it slows your body and affects your body as a depressant affects it.

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
  • Mood improvement

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, depressants 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
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Feelings of relaxation

It is believed that there is one additional category, which is where we find alcohol. This third category includes drugs categorized as either a stimulant or a depressant, but they produce the effects of both.

Alcohol is 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 intoxication you feel when you drink alcohol 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.

Note that this transition from a stimulating effect to a depressant effect happens at different times for different people. The amount of time it takes someone to reach a BAC of .08 varies based on their weight and the alcohol content in what they are drinking. There is also evidence that some people experience a higher intensity stimulation from alcohol and 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 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 driving while intoxicated is so dangerous. Alcohol makes people more likely to take risks they normally wouldn’t, while at the same time slowing their response time and coordination.

Alcohol causes many people to act more aggressively. Various changes work together to exacerbate the situation. For example, someone drinking alcohol might feel over-confident, more aggressive, and be more willing to engage in risky behavior.

People who have developed alcohol use disorder (AUD) are prone to mental health and behavioral changes, including:

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

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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

Someone who is drinking might initially feel relaxed and at ease, but over time will feel:

  • Anxious
  • Restless
  • Confused
  • Disoriented

A frequent heavy drinker experiences frequent drastic fluctuations in several important substances in the brain. Long-term, this affects how the brain operates on its own. The brain adapts to its constant exposure to alcohol 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. Detox and addiction treatment is necessary for excessive drinkers, especially for long-time alcohol addiction.

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?

Someone having a stimulated reaction to their initial dose of alcohol will talk more, feel better, and have increased blood pressure and heart rate.

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 abuse drugs or alcohol to cope. This is why some depressed people also suffer from alcoholism.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

  • Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days but can be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of your stay at an inpatient rehab facility, you will live on site is a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Most programs will will help you set up an aftercare program upon completion.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) Partial hospitalization programs (also called intensive outpatient programs, or IOPs) are comparable to inpatient programs, but you return home after each session. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. Their services may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. PHPs accept new patients, along with patients who have completed an inpatient treatment program and still require intensive care.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They are best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success, and may also be a part of aftercare program once a patient completes an inpatient or PHP.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) Certain patients with Alcohol Use Disorder will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detoxify, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. 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 secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach as well.

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Resources

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National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 14 Sept. 2011.

Hendler, Reuben A, et al. “Stimulant and Sedative Effects of Alcohol,” Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, vol. 13, 2013, pp. 489–509.

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 (1985): 18-34. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.48.1.18.

"How Alcohol Affects Your Body," Better Health Channel.

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.

Sullivan, Edith et al., "Alcohol's Effects on Brain and Behavior," Alcohol Research & Health, 2010; 33(1-2): pp. 127-143.

 

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