Is Alcohol a Depressant or Stimulant?

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Alcohol has its ups and then its downs. So is alcohol a depressant or a stimulant? To answer this question, let’s first discuss the difference between a stimulant and a depressant.

A stimulant is a substance that increases your heart rate and level of alertness. A depressant, as the name suggests, is a substance that slows down your heart rate and bodily functions and decreases alertness.

If you’ve ever consumed alcohol before, you may have noticed an initial burst of confidence and lack of inhibition. But after continuing to drink, you may have felt your body slow down, brain fogging, and speech slurring. That’s because alcohol acts both as a stimulant and a depressant.

When you first begin drinking and your blood alcohol content (BAC) [1] is under 0.05 mg/l, you may experience feelings of excitement and exhilaration. That’s the alcohol acting as a stimulant. Once your BAC exceeds 0.08 mg/l, that’s when you start to feel drowsy and begin to slow down - because that’s when the depressant effects of alcohol kick in.

Why is Alcohol a Depressant?

As explained above, since alcohol slows down your heart rate and reaction rate, it is considered a depressant.

Other depressant effects of alcohol include:

●      Lowered blood pressure

●      Disorientation

●      Decreased coordination

●      Drowsiness

●      Decreased inhibition

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How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain and Central Nervous System?

Alcohol functions as a depressant for the central nervous system. As such, it slows down brain activity. Its effects extend to altering mood, behavior, and self-regulation. Additionally it can impede memory and hinder cognitive clarity.

How does alcohol affect the nervous system? Alcohol abuse poses potential long-term issues in the nervous system, including:

  • Memory loss
  • Changes in speech
  • Reduced hearing
  • Impaired vision.

It also affects brain and liver tissues. It can lead to the destruction of brain cells and overall depression of the nervous system.

Which Neurotransmitter Receptors do Alcohol and CNS Depressants Affect?

Alcohol and CNS depressants affect different parts of the brain by causing some chemicals to be more active and others less active. This leads to a calming and sedating effect. Specifically, they target the following parts of the brain:

●      GABA-A Receptors: Alcohol and CNS depressants cause increased release of the GABA-A receptors. GABA is a chemical that helps to slow down brain activity. When it binds to GABA-A receptors in the brain, it causes neurons to become less active, leading to sedation.

●      Glutamate Receptors: Alcohol and CNS depressants reduce the release of glutamate receptors, especially NMDA receptors [2] Glutamate is a chemical that helps to increase brain activity. By inhibiting these receptors, alcohol and CNS depressants cause a decrease in brain activity, resulting in sedation.

●      Dopamine Receptors: Alcohol and some CNS depressants indirectly affect dopamine signaling in the brain, which can increase the release of dopamine in certain areas of the brain. This contributes to the pleasurable and reinforcing effects of alcohol and some CNS depressants.

●      Serotonin Receptors: Alcohol and CNS depressants can influence the activity of serotonin receptors to some extent, although we don't fully understand the exact mechanisms. Changes in serotonin transmission may contribute to the mood-altering effects of alcohol and CNS depressants.

It's important to note that the effects of alcohol and CNS depressants on neurotransmitter systems can be complex and vary depending on the specific substance and dosage. Additionally, chronic and excessive alcohol or CNS depressant use can lead to neuroadaptations and long-term changes in neurotransmitter systems, contributing to tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant, or does it just have Similar Effects?

Although alcohol acts as both a stimulant and depressant, alcohol is officially classified as a depressant. What this means for the user is that it can lead to some desired side effects like relaxation, lowered inhibitions, decreased anxiety, and greater sociability in the short term. However, drinking too much alcohol can lead to depression and bad decision-making skills in the long term.

Can Alcohol Increase Depression and Anxiety?

When a person first starts drinking, alcohol can decrease depression and anxiety. However the more a person drinks, the greater the likelihood that they can develop permanent anxiety and depressive symptoms. As they drink more alcohol, their anxiety and depressive symptoms are likely to increase.

One out of three alcoholics [3] has experienced episodes of intense depression or anxiety. When asked if they turned to alcohol due to their depression or anxiety, most answered “yes”, but subsequent research revealed that they did not have anxiety or depressive episodes prior to their alcoholism.

Is Alcohol an Upper or a Downer?

Since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it is classified as a downer. Due to its legality and easy access, alcohol is one of the most addictive and abused substances in the world. Approximately 95,000 deaths a year are due to alcohol consumption. These deaths can be attributed to three main causes: alcohol-induced traffic accidents, liver failure, and alcohol poisoning.

Some side effects of alcohol use include:

●      Impaired motor function

●      Impaired judgment

●      Slurred speech

●      Dizziness

●      Suppressed breathing

●      Drowsiness

If a person drinks too much alcohol, they are at risk of:

●      Vomiting

●      Unconsciousness

●      Stroke

●      Seizure

●      Liver damage


What is Considered a Depressant?

Depressants are drugs that reduce alertness and stimulation. They work by slowing down the messages sent between the brain and the body. These substances have the potential to impact a person's focus and physical coordination, resulting in a slower response to unforeseen circumstances. When consumed in small amounts, they can induce a sense of relaxation and reduce inhibitions. To read about other depressants, such as zaza red and its effects, read our online resources.

Which Alcohol Is Not a Depressant?

There are several myths circulating that tequila is the only alcoholic beverage that is not a depressant. Despite its initial effects, tequila remains a depressant since it falls under the category of alcoholic beverages. The alcohol molecules found in tequila, specifically ethanol, are identical to those in whisky, wine, beer, vodka, and other liquors. Therefore, while tequila may have distinct immediate effects, it ultimately functions as and is considered to be a depressant.

Is Alcohol a Stimulant?

From a scientific standpoint, alcohol is not considered a stimulant. Despite its initial stimulating effects, it is classified as a depressant due to its long-term impact on both the physical body and the mind.

Is Alcohol a Depressant You Need Help With?

If you or a loved one are suffering from an alcohol addiction, Avenues Recovery are here to help. As leaders in addiction rehabilitation, we can guide you on your road to full recovery!

Reach out today. You deserve better than a life of addiction. You deserve an addiction-free future ahead.

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