Drinking profoundly alters an individual’s mood, behavior, and neuropsychological functioning. For many people, alcohol consumption is a means of relaxation; however, the effects of alcohol and hangovers can induce anxiety and increase stress. So is alcohol a depressant? Alcohol is classified as a Central Nervous System depressant, meaning that it slows down brain functioning and neural activity. Alcohol does this by enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA.
Why Is Alcohol A Depressant?
Alcohol can depress the central nervous system so much that it results in impairment such as slurred speech, unsteady movement, disturbed perceptions, and an inability to react quickly. Mentally, alcohol reduces an individual’s ability to think rationally, lessens inhibitions, and distorts judgment. If an individual consumes too much alcohol too rapidly, they can depress the central nervous system to a point of respiratory failure, coma, or death.
Alcohol encompasses both stimulating and sedative effects. Although clinically categorized as a depressant, the amount of alcohol consumed and a person’s reaction determine the type of effect he or she will experience. Most people drink for the initial stimulant effect, to “loosen up” and reduce social inhibitions. However, if a person consumes more than the body can handle or has a higher tolerance, he or she will then begin to experience alcohol’s sedating effects such as cognitive impairment.
Some individuals drink primarily for alcohol’s sedative effects, such as anxiety reduction. Some studies suggest that most people initially drink alcohol to experience stimulation and associated positive effects, but after becoming dependent or developing an addiction, they switch to drinking primarily to experience the anxiety associated with the sedative effects. Drinking slowly is more likely to lead to a desire for more sedative effects while drinking rapidly tends to increase stimulation effects.
Some researchers believe that people who don’t respond to alcohol’s sedative effects as strongly as others are at a heightened risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. They drink more to compensate for the fact that they don’t immediately feel anything, increasing their chances of experiencing the negative side effects. Alcohol overdose, or alcohol poisoning, can cause even more severe depressant effects, including:
- Inability to feel pain
- Slow and irregular breathing
- Blue skin
- Possibly even death
These reactions additionally depend on how much an individual consumes and how quickly.
Is Alcohol A CNS Depressant? How Depressants Affect The Mind And Body
Alcohol impacts the brain in a variety of ways. Alcohol is a Central Nervous System depressant, meaning that it slows down brain functioning and neural activity. The substance binds to receptors for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a neurotransmitter responsible for producing feelings of calmness and sedation, as well as the depression of the central nervous system that causes suppression of breathing and heart rate. Alcohol also inhibits glutamate, resulting in memory loss and other impaired brain functionality.
In addition to affecting GABA and glutamine, alcohol releases dopamine – the neurotransmitter chemical responsible for pleasure and reward. This causes people to drink even more in an attempt to increase the feel-good effects that dopamine produces. However, as more alcohol is consumed, more depressant effects will develop. As an individual continues drinking and more alcohol enters the system, it impairs judgment, vision, and alertness; dulls the senses; affects concentration, and slows down reaction time.
Is Alcohol A Depressant? Side Effects Of Alcohol And Other Depressants
In addition to alcohol, there are many other depressant drugs. Sometimes referred to as “downers,” these are medications that are regularly prescribed to reduce symptoms of anxiety, panic, and sleep disorders due to their tranquilizing effects. The most common depressants include:
Abusing depressant medications and alcohol can result in both short-term and long-term effects, some of which can be irreversible. While many people use depressants because of the relaxing effects that these substances temporarily create, the severity of the negative effects far outweighs any positive associations. Side effects of depressant abuse include:
- Low blood pressure
- Slowed heart rate
- Slurred speech
- Impaired motor skills
- Slowed breathing
- Low blood pressure
There are several non-physical effects of depressant abuse as well. Many depressant abusers experience problems with finances, employment, friends, and family. Additionally, the effects that alcohol induces can easily put others at risk and in danger, such as driving under the influence, participating in unprotected sex, and engaging in physical altercations.
Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?
A stimulant is a substance that speeds up activity in your central nervous system, as a result, you feel more energetic, confident, while the stimulant also speeds up your heart rate and increases your blood pressure.
On the other hand, a depressant makes the opposite, slow down activity in your central nervous system, you may feel relaxed and even sleepy. So Alcohol has certain effects as ‘upper’ but very momentarily, after that effusive moment when your brain is releasing more dopamine, the alcohol ingest starts to slow your brain activities and reaction times, especially if you drink alcohol in excess.
Is Alcohol a Depressant That Causes Depression?
Since alcohol is a depressant and alters some of the brain chemicals that regulate mood, you may wonder if it can cause depression or anxiety. Scientists have had observational evidence for decades that suggests an association between alcohol use and mood disorder. For example, a small study in 1991 concluded that depressive episodes after drinking alcohol may be related to reduced levels of serotonin.
Research says it’s a combination of many chemical imbalances (caused by alcohol consumption) that may lead to mood disorder – but it happens over time. If you drink too much in one night, you can deplete the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) normally associated with feeling content, but you can recover after a night of drinking. If you drink over time, you’ll end up with chronic dysregulation.
Is Alcohol A Depressant? Medication-Assisted Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in the piece ‘MAT Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions’, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several different medications to treat alcohol and opioids use disorders. MAT medications relieve the withdrawal symptoms and psychological cravings that cause chemical imbalances in the body. Medications used for MAT are evidence-based treatment options and do not just substitute one drug for another.
Methadone used to treat those with a confirmed diagnosis of Opioid Use Disorder can only be dispensed through a SAMHSA-certified OTP. Some of the medications used in MAT are controlled substances due to their potential for misuse. Drugs, substances, and certain chemicals used to make drugs are classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) into five distinct categories, or schedules, depending upon a drug’s acceptable medical use and potential for misuse.
Is Alcohol A Depressant? Alcohol Use Disorder Medications
Acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone are the most common drugs used to treat alcohol use disorder. They do not provide a cure for the disorder but are most effective in people who participate in a MAT program.
- Acamprosate: is for people in recovery, who are no longer drinking alcohol and want to avoid drinking. It works to prevent people from drinking alcohol, but it does not prevent withdrawal symptoms after people drink alcohol. It has not been shown to work in people who continue drinking alcohol, consume illicit drugs, and/or engage in prescription drug misuse and abuse. The use of acamprosate typically begins on the fifth day of abstinence, reaching full effectiveness in five to eight days. It is offered in tablet form and taken three times a day, preferably at the same time every day. The medication’s side effects may include diarrhea, upset stomach, appetite loss, anxiety, dizziness, and difficulty sleeping.
- Disulfiram: treats chronic alcoholism and is most effective in people who have already gone through detoxification or are in the initial stage of abstinence. Offered in tablet form and taken once a day, disulfiram should never be taken while intoxicated and it should not be taken for at least 12 hours after drinking alcohol. Unpleasant side effects (nausea, headache, vomiting, chest pains, difficulty breathing) can occur as soon as ten minutes after drinking even a small amount of alcohol and can last for an hour or more.
- Naltrexone: blocks the euphoric effects and feelings of intoxication and allows people with alcohol use disorders to reduce alcohol use and to remain motivated to continue to take the medication, stay in treatment, and avoid relapses.
Reclaim Your Life From Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol Use Disorder is a condition that can cause major health, social, and economic problems that should not be taken lightly. We Level Up Treatment Center can provide you, or someone you love, the tools to recover from this disease with professional and safe supervision for alcohol detox treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. We can inform you about this condition by giving you clarity about questions like “is alcohol a depressant?”. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.
 ‘MAT Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions’ – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (Samhsa.gov)
 Kattimani, S., & Bharadwaj, B. (2013). Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review. Industrial psychiatry journal, 22(2), 100–108. – U.S. National Library of Medicine (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)