Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?
In the United States, alcohol is a legal drug commonly used in social settings to help people relax, feel more confident, and unwind after a busy week.
In moderation, alcohol is usually safe to drink. However, it can be highly addictive and has a significant potential for abuse. Like other drugs, regular and heavy use of alcohol can have severe consequences on your mental and physical health, affecting brain function and your body.
Despite alcohol being so prevalent in society, you may be unsure which drug category it falls into. As a result, you might question if alcohol is a stimulant or depressant. This blog explains the difference between the two and delves into what alcohol does to the body and brain.
What Is the Difference Between a Stimulant and a Depressant?
Responsible for sending messages between the body and brain, the central nervous system is essentially the body’s command center. Both stimulants and depressants affect the central nervous system. However, they have opposite effects, which is what makes them different.
Drugs With Stimulant Effects
Stimulants work by stimulating and speeding up the central nervous system. It is common to experience an increased heart rate, more energy, a boost in focus, and confidence as this happens. Breathing rates and blood pressure also elevate, while appetite may reduce. In addition, some stimulants produce feelings of euphoria, leading them to be very addictive.
Some of the common drugs with stimulant effects include:
- MDMA (Ecstasy)
- Crack cocaine
As you can see, this list comprises a mixture of legal drugs, such as nicotine and caffeine, prescription medication, such as Adderall and Ritalin, and illegal drugs, including cocaine and MDMA, which are often abused.
Drugs With Depressant Effects
Depressants inhibit the central nervous system and slow down neurotransmitters, breathing, and heart rate. They also promote feelings of calmness, drowsiness, and sleepiness. In addition, depressants have sedative effects, which can help you feel relaxed. For this reason, legal central nervous system depressants are commonly used to treat insomnia and anxiety.
Some drugs with depressant effects include:
- Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium
- Opioids, including heroin, morphine, and fentanyl
As noted above, alcohol is a depressant. Like many other people, you may confuse depressant drugs with depression. You may also believe that because you feel happy and content upon drinking alcohol, it can’t be a depressant. However, this is not true.
In addition, many people think alcohol is a stimulant because it can help you feel energized. While alcohol has initial stimulant effects due to activating dopamine production and increasing heart rate, it is classified as a depressant.
Risks Associated With Stimulants
Using stimulant drugs can be fatal, especially when large quantities are consumed. Although all drugs within this category have different side effects, they all carry a danger of abuse and addiction. For example, stimulants can result in heart attacks, strokes, seizures, or dangerously overheating.
Abusing stimulants frequently can also result in an array of psychological effects, such as:
Stimulants can also impact your physical health. In addition to putting you at greater risk of a heart attack or stroke, they can lead to:
- Brain hemorrhages
- Muscle loss
- Weight loss
- Breathing issues
- Stomach issues
- Reduction in sexual functioning
Risks Associated With Depressants
Similarly, depressants also come hand-in-hand with risks and dangers that can impair your health and well-being. Abusing depressant drugs can lead to:
- Poor judgment
- Memory loss
- Irregular breathing
- Nausea and vomiting
- A lack of self-control
- Impaired sexual function
- Depression and anxiety
- Low blood pressure
What Is Alcohol Abuse?
For some people, consuming small amounts of alcohol is possible and does not lead to any problems. However, alcohol abuse and poor mental health can arise for others.
If you find it difficult to control the amount of alcohol you drink or struggle to socialize, go without drinking, or constantly think about alcohol, you may have an alcohol addiction. Sadly, abusing alcohol frequently and regularly is dangerous due to the many adverse side effects it can have on the body and the brain.
Over time, your body will develop a tolerance to alcohol, making it more difficult to get the desired effects. This can lead to physical dependence, making it very difficult to quit. Despite its widespread use, alcohol is one of the most challenging and dangerous drugs to abstain from.
How Does Alcohol Affect Central Nervous System Activity?
As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol slows down brain function and decreases brain activity, even when lower doses are consumed. This is because it binds to the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain, meaning that it replicates its effects.
GABA has a crucial role in inhibiting brain signals, and a lack of it can result in anxiety, fear, and stress. Due to alcohol stimulating these receptors, electrical activity reduces, and positive feelings, such as reduced anxiety, can occur after alcohol consumption.
However, the dangerous effects of alcohol transpire when the body’s chemistry becomes reliant on the substance to stimulate GABA receptors. When this happens, the body adapts by reducing its own production of GABA, meaning that the neural activity goes into overdrive when alcohol is taken away.
This is dangerous because it means that suddenly quitting alcohol after a dependency has developed can result in seizures, coma, or even death.
How Is Excessive Alcohol Use Dangerous?
The initial effects of drinking too much alcohol can lead to slurred speech and slower reaction times. Due to lowering inhibitions, alcohol can also increase risky behavior, such as unprotected sex and taking illicit drugs. Meanwhile, binge drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning.
As alcohol powerfully affects dopamine production, it is not unusual for your brain to become flooded with dopamine when you drink. Though described as a rewarding feeling, this leads to addiction.
Over time, however, alcohol suppresses dopamine production, causing you to experience feelings of depression when you attempt to reduce your alcohol intake or stop drinking altogether. Unfortunately, major depressive disorder is a debilitating illness that impacts your mental health and brain function, making the effects of alcohol very harmful.
In addition, high doses of alcohol over a prolonged period can have profound health consequences, such as liver damage, high blood pressure, and stroke. It can also cause memory loss, cognitive impairment, and sleep disorders due to the way it affects your body’s REM sleep cycle.
Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorders
If you or a loved one struggles with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), treatment options are available via treatment facilities across the country. Although seeking professional treatment is in your best interest, you may believe you can simply quit cold turkey. However, this is not safe and can be life-threatening.
Before commencing treatment or deciding on which treatment to take advantage of, it is essential to consult with your doctor or another professional.
When the time comes for you to start treatment, you will likely complete alcohol detox. The first stage in overcoming an addiction, detox will help you tackle your physical dependency.
After detox, you will need to continue recovery by overcoming your psychological addiction. With the correct support from a certified addiction professional, your addiction can be overcome, and a life free from alcohol can be achieved.
Following treatment, you may be referred to support groups such as the 12-step group, individual therapy, or group therapy to understand your addiction and learn healthy and practical coping mechanisms to avoid relapse.
Alcohol is a depressant with initial stimulating effects, including increased heart rate, impulsive behavior, and aggression. However, in larger quantities, it is a depressant that slows down the central nervous system and releases dopamine, leading to alcohol abuse and addiction.
In moderation, alcohol may be safe to drink. However, it carries a series of health risks and the potential for alcohol use disorder. For this reason, it is important to be careful and always take care of yourself and your loved ones when drinking.
If you are worried about alcohol addiction, get in touch with your doctor or an addiction specialist to discuss options. Addiction is a disease, but it can be beaten with the right support and medical assistance.