is alcohol a depressant

Is Alcohol a Depressant or a Stimulant?

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Whether alcohol is a depressant or a stimulant is a common question people have. Drinking affects your central nervous system. In doing so, drinking affects how your brain communicates with nerves in your body.

A drug like alcohol will affect neurotransmitters; in particular. it affects a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA; this leads to a slowdown in brain activity.

Below, we discuss how alcohol can affect you and how depressants differ from stimulants.

The Effects of Alcohol on the Body

The effects of alcohol on you begin as soon as taking a sip. At first, when you drink, you might experience a buzzy feeling. You could feel more social, happier, more relaxed, or even euphoric. Those effects are short-lived, however.

Is alcohol a central nervous system depressant? Yes, but you might not feel the depressant or sedative effects right away. These effects tend to be felt more at greater blood alcohol concentrations. 

Other short-term effects include:

  • Changes in mood
  • Impulsiveness
  • Slow or slurred speech
  • Reduced inhibitions
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Drowsiness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Problems with decision-making and brain function 
  • Blacking out, which means you have gaps in your memory or lose consciousness

Alcohol’s Effects on the Central Nervous System

Understanding how alcohol affects your central nervous system helps you better understand many of the more specific impacts it can have.

Drinking reduces communication between your brain and body. That reduction in communication leads to negative effects like slurred speech and changes in coordination, balance, and reaction time. Those central nervous system effects are why you shouldn’t ever drink and drive.

  • Your central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord.
  • Even moderate consumption affects your central nervous system in both the short- and long term.
  • Drinking can lead to adverse effects such as interruptions in sleep, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts or behaviors because it depresses the central nervous system.
  • Long-term abuse can lead to a higher risk of dementia, neuropathy, and other serious conditions.
  • Even in the short term, consuming large amounts of alcohol can lead to respiratory failure, coma, or death.
  • Someone with alcohol poisoning can lose consciousness, have a low body temperature, or it can slow their heart rate to a dangerous level.
  • Irregular breathing and low body temperature are also signs of an overdose.
  •  Alcohol poisoning is most common in situations involving binge drinking. 

Other Effects of Alcohol

Along with what’s above, some of the other many potential effects of alcohol can include:

  • Excessive drinking can cause inflammation of the pancreas. This inflammation can cause a medical condition called pancreatitis, affecting digestive and endocrine glands.
  • Your liver helps remove toxins, including alcohol, from your body. Long-term use interferes with your liver’s ability to remove toxins and increases the potential for liver diseases. Often people with alcohol use disorders will develop severe liver issues. 
  • If alcohol causes pancreas damage, it can also affect how your body produces insulin, affecting blood sugar levels.
  • Drinking can damage the tissues in your digestive tract, preventing your intestines from absorbing nutrients and vitamins, leading to malnutrition and other similar long-term effects. 
  • Circulatory system complications from heavy drinking include high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack. Drinking can also damage your heart and lungs.
  • Too much alcohol can prevent sex hormone production and lower your libido. It can also increase the risk of infertility.
  • Heavy or excessive alcohol use reduces your immune system.
  • You may be at higher risk of developing many types of cancer if you drink a lot.

Alcohol and Mental Health

Alcohol use can cause certain mental health symptoms or worsen existing conditions. For example, we answered the question “is alcohol a depressant” above. The answer is yes, and since that’s the case, alcohol can cause or worsen depressive disorders. Alcohol can also cause or make anxiety worse, and it can lead to sleep disturbances.

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Stimulants vs. Depressants

While we’ve covered the fact that alcohol is a depressant, despite the initially intoxicating effects, what is a stimulant?

Stimulants affect the body in the opposite way as depressants. Stimulants increase the activity of the central nervous system. You’ll sometimes hear a stimulant called an upper and a depressant, a downer.

A stimulant might increase brain activity. Other effects of stimulants can include higher blood pressure, breathing rate, and heart rate.

While alcohol primarily affects GABA, stimulants mainly affect dopamine and norepinephrine. Stimulants increase the activity of these neurotransmitters. Dopamine and norepinephrine play a role in rewarding behaviors and regulating certain functions.

When you use a stimulant, you feel a rush of euphoria, known as a high. Other short-term stimulant effects include:

  • Increased libido and sexual desire
  • More attention, alertness, and focus
  • Increases in energy and self-esteem
  • Feelings of happiness and well-being
  • Easier breathing and more open airways
  • Suppressed appetite

While the initial short-term effects of stimulants may seem positive, there are serious and sometimes deadly long-term consequences. For example, stimulants can quickly lead to addiction and dependence.

Regular stimulant use can cause anger, paranoia, and psychosis. These substances can trigger irregular heartbeat, raised body temperature, seizures, and heart failure at high doses.

Other Depressants Aside From Alcohol

Alcohol isn’t the only depressant that slows the central nervous system and has a potential for addiction and dependence.

Benzodiazepines like Xanax and sedative-hypnotic drugs are also depressants.

As prescriptions, depressants may be used to treat anxiety, muscle spasms, and sleep disorders. While some are less risky than others, they all have the same general effects on the CNS.

When someone regularly uses depressants, they may become dependent on them. When you’re dependent on a depressant and stop using it, you may go through withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms from a depressant drug include:

  • Shakiness
  • Overactive responses and reflexes
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sleep problems or insomnia
  • Increased temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

When someone goes through withdrawal from a depressant, it can be potentially severe or life-threatening. Medical detox is recommended because of the possible severity.

Final Thoughts—Is Alcohol a Depressant?

To sum up, is alcohol a depressant? Yes. Since it’s a depressant, alcohol slows the function of your brain and the messaging that occurs between it and your body. Excessive drinking can also trigger or worsen mental health issues like depression.

If you feel like you have an alcohol dependence, it can have serious mental and physical health implications. We encourage you to call 408-547-4089 and contact the team at Silicon Valley Recovery confidentially to learn more about treatment options, including medical detox.