Updated on February 6, 2024
3 min read

Is Alcohol a Depressant or a Stimulant?

Alcohol is a depressant but can be mildly stimulating too. Consumed in small quantities, it can:

  • Increase energy
  • Decrease inhibitions
  • Increase heart rate
  • Increases dopamine levels
  • Increases aggression and impulsiveness

As you consume more alcohol, it will begin to slow your body down. After a while, its depressant effects become more apparent.

Why is Alcohol Mistaken as a Stimulant? 

Although alcohol is a depressant, it does have stimulating effects:

  • It mimics gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of relaxation and improves mood
  • It increases your dopamine levels, the hormone that triggers feelings of happiness and causes you to feel energized

Evidence shows that some people can experience a more significant stimulant effect from alcohol. Many researchers believe this puts them at a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD).

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Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?
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How Much Alcohol Does it Take to Feel Stimulating Effects?

Typically 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.

How alcohol affects your BAC levels depends on the following factors:

  • Weight
  • Sex
  • Type of alcohol
  • How much food you’ve eaten
  • How much alcohol you’ve drunk

How Do Stimulants and Depressants Affect Your Body?

Both stimulants and depressants affect the CNS, but they do it differently. These are the different side effects:

Stimulant Side Effects

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

Examples of stimulants include: 

  • Amphetamines
  • Caffeine
  • Cocaine

Side effects of stimulants include:

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

Depressant Side Effects

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. 

Examples of depressants include:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturates
  • Ketamine
  • Cannabis
  • Heroin 

Side effects of depressants include:

  • Decreased heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Feelings of relaxation
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How Does Alcohol Affect Behavior?

Alcohol eases inhibitions. It makes people more talkative and reduces self-control, making you more careless.

Alcohol interferes with how the brain works and makes it more challenging to think clearly and coordinate physical actions. This effect is one of the reasons why driving while intoxicated is so dangerous.

Alcohol slows down your reflexes and coordination. It can also increase aggression. People who have AUD are prone to mental and behavioral changes, including:

  • Inability to set limits on alcohol consumption
  • Failure 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

At first, someone drinking might feel relaxed and at ease, but over time may 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, making the brain incapable of functioning without alcohol.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

If you develop an AUD, you may experience alcohol withdrawal when you stop drinking. A variety of mental health symptoms include:

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

Summary

Alcohol is a depressant that affects the central nervous system. However, it can have stimulant effects in small amounts.

You can feel euphoric and energetic when you drink alcohol. This feeling can make you think that alcohol is a stimulant.

Although alcohol can have stimulating effects, it doesn’t last for long. Over time the stimulant effects will fade, and you’ll start to feel its depressant effects.

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Updated on February 6, 2024

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