Most people know that alcohol is a drug, but what many don’t understand is exactly what kind of drug it is. Is alcohol a stimulant or depressant?
The answer is alcohol is a depressant with some stimulating effects. Confused? No worries. Let’s unpack this further.
What Is a Stimulant?
Stimulants are substances that induce temporary improvements in mental or physical function, alertness, and/or attention.
Caffeine is perhaps the most common stimulant people consume on a daily basis (guilty!). Caffeine is present in coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, and energy drinks.
Other common stimulants include nicotine, cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, ephedrine (found in some weight loss supplements), and methylphenidate (brand name Ritalin).
What Is a Depressant?
Depressants are substances that reduce arousal and stimulation. When people take depressants, it affects the central nervous system and slows down the body and the messages between various parts of the body.
When you take a depressant, you may feel relaxed and even sleepy or sedated. You may also experience lowered blood pressure and slowed heart rate. Additional side effects of depressants can include experiencing nausea, vomiting, sweating, shivering, dizziness, headache, confusion, difficulty breathing, drowsiness, slurred speech, dry mouth, blurred vision, and constipation.
Here are some other depressants people may consume:
- Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium)
- Opioids (Oxycodone, Heroin)
Depressants have a wide range of effects on people’s bodies. It largely depends on your body chemistry, which depressant you’ve taken, and what else might be in your system at the time.
Alcohol is a depressant.
Oftentimes people hear “depressant” and immediately think of turning into a sloth. But that isn’t always how it works. For example, alcohol is often used as a social lubricant to make people feel less inhibited and relaxed, which leads to more outgoing behavior. So initially, the effects make you more energetic.
Other depressants such as opioids can induce feelings of relaxation and euphoria (a state of pleasure, excitement, or happiness). This can actually lead to reckless behavior.
Because of these effects, there is often a lot of confusion around which drugs are stimulants or depressants.
Annie Grace has a lovely YouTube explainer on this if you’d like to understand more:
Similarities Between Depressants and Stimulants
Certain depressants are similar to certain stimulants.
Alcohol shares similarities with both substances. For example, alcohol is known to have a stimulating effect on the brain at low doses. That’s the euphoric buzz you get when you first start drinking.
However, after drinking a moderate to high dose of alcohol, people can experience sedation and drowsiness, which is similar to how someone may feel after taking an opioid or benzodiazepine.
Differences between Depressants and Stimulants
There are many differences between depressants and stimulants. One of the biggest is that depressants induce sleepiness, while stimulants keep people awake and alert.
Another difference is that when people take a depressant such as alcohol, they can become impaired in several ways including:
- slurred speech
- impaired motor skills
- poor judgment
- slow reaction time
Stimulants can be tricky, too. Although stimulants like caffeine are often thought to keep people awake, they actually only delay fatigue. Stimulants do not cause impairment; rather, they mask it. It’s why people often “crash” after the stimulant wears off. A mild example of this is a late morning slump after your morning coffee loses its kick.
The Stimulating Effects of Alcohol
How does alcohol behave like a stimulant? Well, it stimulates the brain by reducing inhibition and making people feel relaxed and more outgoing. These sorts of changes in personality can lead to different kinds of stimulatory behavior such as talking loudly, laughing, flirting, dancing, etc.
This effect is similar to how depressants (temporarily) reduce anxiety and induce relaxation which increases sociability. Alcohol also has a stimulating effect on the brain which can cause euphoria and disinhibition. This is also how depressants reduce stress, making people feel more relaxed and less inhibited around others.
However, alcohol’s stimulating effects are quite strong for a depressant. Alcohol is fast-acting, so it immediately affects brain function after just a few minutes of consumption.
Why Does Alcohol Give You Energy?
If alcohol is a depressant, why does it give you energy?
What we call “energy” in this case is actually a massive dopamine boost triggered by alcohol. It’s why people may have drunk personalities that are drastically different from their sober personas.
Additionally, alcohol can increase heart rate and actually cause aggression in some individuals – another similarity with stimulants.
But alcohol is NOT a stimulant.
Sure, alcohol may have stimulating effects when you first consume them, but its primary function is as a depressant – something that slows your nervous system down.
Once that initial buzz wears off, alcohol’s true nature goes to work. Your blood pressure and heart rate drop, and your mental clarity becomes a bit foggy.
Eventually, your reaction times will slow and you’ll find yourself becoming incredibly sleepy (aka pass out).
Even though alcohol initially floods the brain with dopamine, long-term, heavy alcohol use produces the opposite effect. The brain becomes so accustomed to the artificial boost of dopamine from alcohol that it stops producing it on its own, even closing down dopamine receptors in an attempt to bring the brain back into balance.
The end result is increased depression and anxiety in the absence of alcohol.
The Depressant Effects of Alcohol
Now that it’s clear that alcohol is a depressant, let’s look at how it works in the body.
As we’ve already mentioned, alcohol depresses the central nervous system by slowing down signals in the brain and spinal cord. It does this by interacting with neurotransmitters in the brain – specifically GABA and glutamate neurotransmitters. GABA neurotransmitters inhibit brain function while glutamate neurotransmitters increase brain function.
Alcohol prevents the release of glutamate at the NMDA receptor, which then tells the body’s “excitatory” response to shut down temporarily.
If you have too much alcohol in your system, it will eventually start preventing the normal firing of neurons within the central nervous system. This is why, as blood alcohol levels increase, your body’s reflexes slow and you lose consciousness. You may also experience slurred speech or double vision.
Alcohol can overstimulate GABA pathways which can lead to extreme sedation, coma, or even overdose.
Is alcohol causing my depression?
This question is very chicken and egg. On the one hand, heavy alcohol use can cause long-term changes in brain function and neurotransmitter production which can lead to depression.
But, on the other hand, people whose brains are already predisposed to clinical depression may self-medicate by abusing alcohol, which only exacerbates the depression further.
If you have a family history of depression or mental illness, it’s important that you understand how your brain chemistry works and ensure you maintain a healthy lifestyle.
It’s also important to note that people can have alcohol-induced depression or anxiety which is completely separate from their underlying mental condition. In short, the answer to this question depends on your personal situation and health history.
However what is true for anyone is that heavy, sustained alcohol consumption will only make mental health problems worse.
If you feel like you might have a problem with alcohol, do not be afraid to reach out and get help.