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.
Why is alcohol not a stimulant?
The 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, 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.
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 wellbeing.
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.
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 classification “depressant” doesn’t mean alcohol causes depression. It describes alcohol’s slowing effects on the central nervous system.
However, alcohol and depression are closely linked.
- Alcoholics are 3.7 times more likely to experience a major depressive disorder than non-alcoholics.
- Having preexisting depression is known to put people at risk of developing a problematic relationship with alcohol.
- Neither disease has one singular cause, but the triggers leading to both diseases are similar like certain genes, trauma and social isolation.
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.
What are other depressants?
In addition to alcohol, the following substances are also considered depressants:
- Opiates (including heroin)
- Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, etc.)
- Certain inhalants
(See the Is alcohol a drug? article).
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
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
All content is for informational purposes only. No material on this site, whether from our doctors or the community, is a substitute for seeking personalized professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard advice from a qualified healthcare professional or delay seeking advice because of something you read on this website.
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