Is alcohol a stimulant?

Is Alcohol A Stimulant Header Graphic

Alcohol is interesting in that it does have certain stimulating effects, but it is not classified as a stimulant. These effects include increased heart rate, a sense of energy, and lowered inhibitions. However, these are only seen during the initial stages of intoxication, after which sedative effects begin to set in. As a result, alcohol cannot be classified as a stimulant.

Why is alcohol not a stimulant?

The correct classification of a drug is based on the dominant effects. With alcohol, depressant effects are dominant, so it is considered a depressant. 

When determining if a substance is a stimulant or a depressant, doctors look at how it impacts the central nervous system. Stimulants, also known as uppers, will speed up the processes of the central nervous system. Depressants, also known as downers, slow these processes down. Alcohol is interesting because it does both, speeding up and slowing down the CNS at different stages of intoxication. The myth that alcohol is a stimulant began because of its ability to loosen people up and reduce social inhibitions. 

Stimulates Speed Up Your System Depressants Bring Down Your System

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 manifest in symptoms such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, greater alertness, boosted energy, and general feelings of wellbeing. For a substance to be classified as a stimulant, these effects must be the dominant ones produced by the substance.

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, and 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.

Is alcohol a depressant?

Yes, alcohol is classified as a depressant. This is because the initial stimulatory effects turn to depressant effects as soon as the intoxication levels fail to rise. Through its 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.

Is alcohol causing my depression?

The links between alcohol consumption and depression are complex. The classification “depressant” doesn’t mean alcohol causes depression, but rather, it describes alcohol’s effects on the central nervous system.

However, depression and addiction are closely linked, and many people with alcohol use disorder also have co-occurring depression. Having preexisting depression is known to put people at risk of developing a problematic relationship with alcohol. However, there is also evidence that alcohol abuse can alter the brain and lead to the development of depression. Whether alcohol is a direct cause of depression is up for debate, but there is a clear correlation. Alcoholics are 3.7 times more likely to experience a major depressive disorder than non-alcoholics.

When treating alcoholics that have depression, it’s vital to help them work through the root causes of their depression while simultaneously treating their addiction. Without treating the underlying causes of co-occurring mental disorders, substance abuse treatment is much less likely to work.

Negative Feelings - Drinking to Stop Negative Feelings - Creates or Worsens Problems - Depression - back to Negative Feelings

What are other depressants?

In addition to alcohol, the following substances are also considered depressants:

  • Opiates (including heroin)
  • Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, etc.)
  • Ketamine
  • Certain inhalants
  • GHB

Are stimulants or depressants more dangerous?

Both stimulants and depressants are dangerous for different reasons. Stimulants 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.

Depressants, on the other hand, slow the body’s processes down in some cases to the point that respiration and cardiac activity cease. In an overdose scenario, the 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 especially dangerous. While some users will attempt to mix uppers and downers, thinking that this will balance the negative effects of each, it actually increases the risks.

Does alcohol increase heart rate?

Yes, alcohol does increase heart rate as well as raise blood pressure during the initial stages of intoxication. As a result, heavy drinking increases the risk of experience cardiovascular-related diseases such as heart attack and stroke. However, once the depressant effects begin to set in, heart rate decreases, sometimes to a dangerous degree. Anyone consuming alcohol should be aware of both ends of the spectrum and how these effects can harm them.

Sources

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Stimulant and Sedative Effects of Alcohol.”
Psychiatric Times: “Comorbid Depression and Alcohol Dependence.”
Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA): “Depressant.”
Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA): “Stimulants.”

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