Alcohol has certain stimulating effects, but it is not classified as a stimulant. The stimulating effects (like increased heart rate or a sense of energy) only last during the initial stage of intoxication.
Then, sedative effects begin to set in. Since alcohol ultimately slows down the body, it is categorized as a depressant, not a stimulant.
Is Alcohol A Stimulant or Depressant?
Alcohol is classified as a depressant. While it may initially produce some stimulating effects, such as increased sociability and reduced inhibition, its primary action is to depress the central nervous system (CNS). Alcohol slows down brain activity, impairs judgment, coordination, and can lead to sedation or drowsiness. It can also affect various bodily functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing, further reinforcing its classification as a depressant.
Alcohol As a Depressant
How alcohol will affect your body will depend on:
- Your alcohol tolerance
- Your age and sex
- Your body weight and chemistry
- The amount of alcohol consumed
Even low doses of alcohol can increase the levels of dopamine release in the brain. This happens because ethanol, the main ingredient in alcohol, acts on the neurotransmitters in the brain.
This interaction decreases the amount of GABA in the brain, which raises the amount of dopamine. Through these interactions with the CNS, alcohol slows heart rate and breathing and dulls reflexes and response time. In other words, it depresses multiple systems in the body that rely on communication with the CNS to function properly. Alcohol can cause slurred speech, disturbed perceptions, and an inability to react quickly.
What Are Other Depressants?
In addition to alcohol, the following substances are also considered depressants:
- Opioids (including heroin)
- Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, etc.)
- Certain inhalants
Why is Alcohol Not a Stimulant?
While alcohol is commonly referred to as a depressant due to its overall sedating effects on the central nervous system, it does have some initial stimulant-like properties.
When consumed, alcohol initially acts as a central nervous system depressant by slowing down brain activity. This results in relaxation, decreased inhibitions, and a sense of euphoria for some individuals. However, as the blood alcohol concentration increases, alcohol’s depressant effects become more pronounced, leading to impaired coordination, judgment, and cognitive function.
It’s important to note that alcohol’s classification as a depressant primarily refers to its overall impact on the central nervous system. While it may produce some initial stimulating effects, its overall effects on the body and mind are characteristic of a depressant substance.
Ongoing research theorizes that alcoholics experience either greater stimulant effect or less depressant effects compared to peers.
What Is a Stimulant?
Stimulants are substances that increase central nervous system activity. This can induce symptoms such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, greater alertness, boosted energy, and general feelings of well-being. For a substance to be classified as a stimulant, these effects must be the dominant effects produced by the substance.
Common stimulant drugs include:
- Methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin)
- Bath Salts
What kind of stimulant effects does alcohol have?
The most commonly reported stimulant effects of alcohol are:
- feelings of increased energy
- increased heart rate
- rapid respiration
- feelings of aggression
While these effects can be seen in anyone consuming alcohol, they tend to present more strongly in men than in women. The reverse is also true; women tend to experience the depressant effects of alcohol more than men.
Can Alcohol Cause Mental Health Disorder?
Yes, alcohol can contribute to the development of mental health disorders. Prolonged and excessive alcohol consumption can have significant effects on mental health and increase the risk of developing various mental disorders. Some of the mental health issues associated with alcohol use include:
Alcohol can exacerbate symptoms of depression and increase the risk of developing or worsening depressive disorders.
Alcohol use can temporarily alleviate symptoms of anxiety in the short term. However, excessive and chronic alcohol consumption can lead to increased anxiety and even the development of anxiety disorders.
Substance Use Disorders
Alcohol abuse can lead to the development of substance use disorders, where a person becomes dependent on alcohol and experiences difficulty controlling their alcohol consumption.
Heavy alcohol use can induce psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking, particularly in susceptible individuals.
Chronic alcohol abuse can result in cognitive impairments, including memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and decreased overall cognitive functioning.
It’s important to note that alcohol can interact with pre-existing mental health conditions, making them more severe or harder to manage. Additionally, individuals with mental health disorders may be more susceptible to using alcohol as a coping mechanism, leading to a cycle of self-medication and worsening symptoms.
Labeling alcohol as the cause of depression is an oversimplification of complex diseases. But, alcohol will never make depression (or any other disease) better. Problem drinking makes depression worse. You are stuck in a negative cycle of depression and drinking until both diseases are properly treated.
There is good news, though. Getting sober will make it easier to address your depression, and addressing your depression will, in turn, help you stay sober. It will also prevent life-threatening consequences of alcohol, like alcohol liver damage and wet brain.
JourneyPure helps people from across the country tackle both of these problems at the same time at our alcohol rehabs that take insurance.
Are stimulants or depressants more dangerous?
Both stimulants and depressants are dangerous for different reasons.
- Ramp up systems in the body, basically forcing the body into overdrive.
- Over time, having an increased heart rate and higher blood pressure can cause put unnecessary strain on the body.
- Overdose on stimulants can cause arrhythmias, heart attacks and other problems by overworking the organs and causing seizures and heart attacks
- Slow the body’s processes down in some cases to the point that respiration and cardiac activity cease.
- During an overdose, the body’s automatic processes, like breathing, and heart rate, start to slow down and eventually stop altogether. For obvious reasons, this is extremely dangerous and often deadly.
Combining stimulants and depressants is dangerous. While some users mix uppers and downers thinking it balances the negative effects of each, it actually increases the risks of both.
How can I stop using stimulants or depressants?
Although stimulant and depressant drugs have opposite effects, both are physically and mentally addicting. And, long-term substance abuse (including drinking) can cause permanent damage to the brain.
If you’ve tried to stop in the past, but ended up drinking or using, that’s clear sign you need professional help.
Here are the top local places to turn to:
- Alcoholism treatment in Tennessee – Rated as a top two alcohol rehab in the country (verify here)
- Alcohol treatment programs in Kentucky
- Knoxville alcohol treatment
- Alcohol treatment Lexington, KY
- Alcohol rehab Louisville, KY
- Alcohol rehab Nashville, TN
- Bluffs Rehab, OH
- Swift River, MA
- Texas Recovery Center, TX
JourneyPure.com doctors follow rigorous sourcing guidelines and cite only trustworthy sources of information, including peer-reviewed journals, count records, academic organizations, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports and their own expertise with decades in the fields and their own personal recovery.
Chung, T., & Martin, C. S. (2009). Subjective stimulant and sedative effects of alcohol during early drinking experiences predict alcohol involvement in treated adolescents. Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs, 70(5), 660–667. https://doi.org/10.15288/jsad.2009.70.660
Pettinati, H., & Dundon, W. (2011, June 9). Comorbid Depression and Alcohol Dependence. Psychiatric Times, 28(6). https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/comorbid-depression-and-alcohol-dependence
(2020, April). Drug Fact Sheet: Depression. Drug Enforcement Administration. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Depressants-2020.pdf
(2020, April). Drug Fact Sheet: Stimulants. Drug Enforcement Administration. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Stimulants-2020.pdf
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