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.
Alcohol affects your brain function and central nervous system (CNS). Both stimulants and depressants do this, but they do it in different ways.
Side effects of stimulants include:
Caffeine, amphetamines, and cocaine are all examples of stimulants.
Side effects of depressants include:
When strong enough, depressants sedate. Prescription depressants are used to treat anxiety and insomnia.
Some people believe there is one additional category, which is where we find alcohol. This third category includes drugs categorized as either a stimulant or 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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Alcohol is mistaken as 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. It’s this release of dopamine that occurs when you first start drinking that 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).
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 the way 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:
Alcohol affects mental health in a variety of ways, including:
Someone who is drinking might initially feel relaxed and at ease, but over time will feel:
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:
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.
No. But smaller amounts of alcohol produce stimulating effects.
Someone having a stimulated reaction to their initial dose of alcohol will talk more, feel better, and have increased blood pressure and heart rate.
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.
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.
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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, www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body.
Hendler, Reuben A, et al. “Stimulant and Sedative Effects of Alcohol.” Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, vol. 13, 2013, pp. 489–509, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21560041, 10.1007/7854_2011_135.