Most addictive substances fall into one of two categories: stimulants (“uppers”) or depressants (“downers”). These terms refer to the opposite effects each category has on the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord.
Unlike some other substances, alcohol is tough to classify. It’s associated with partying and being social, but it can also slow down motor function and make you sleepy. So, is alcohol a depressant or stimulant? In this post, we’ll answer that tricky question and discuss how alcohol impacts the brain and body.
What Is a Stimulant?
Stimulants speed up or “stimulate” the body’s systems, particularly the central nervous system1. They produce feelings of euphoria and alertness, and they may accelerate heart rate and raise blood pressure. Other common side effects include loss of appetite and long periods of wakefulness.
Often, people engage in patterns of binge use with stimulants. Tolerance and dependence can rapidly develop. Long-term use may lead to paranoia, panic, agitation, and aggression. Excessive doses of stimulants can result in dizziness, chest pain, vomiting, high fever, convulsions, cardiac arrest, and death2.
What Is a Depressant?
On the other hand, depressants slow down or “depress” the central nervous system. They slow brain activity, resulting in a calming effect and feelings of drowsiness. Side effects may include light-headedness, dry mouth, blurred vision, impaired reaction time, difficulties with memory and movement, lowered blood pressure, and slowed breathing3.
Like people who abuse stimulants, people who misuse depressants gradually need larger doses to achieve the same effect. This can lead to dependence. If a dependent individual abruptly stops using, withdrawal occurs. Withdrawal from depressants can cause dangerous consequences like seizures, and it is sometimes fatal.
Excessive doses of depressants can cause breathing to slow too much or stop entirely. When this occurs, the brain does not get enough oxygen. This is called hypoxia and can lead to coma, permanent brain damage, and death.
Is Alcohol a Stimulant, or Is Alcohol a Depressant?
Even with the information above, you may still be wondering: Is alcohol a stimulant, or is alcohol a depressant? It’s a bit of a trick question. Alcohol has both stimulant and depressant effects, but it is technically considered a depressant.
Stimulant Effects of Alcohol
When you drink alcohol, the initial effects feel like a stimulant. Alcohol signals the release of the “feel-good chemical” dopamine in your brain4. As dopamine surges, you may experience a burst of energy, excitement, and confidence. You might feel happy or even giggly.
Depressant Effects of Alcohol
Despite these effects, alcohol is more depressant than stimulant. Have you noticed that your reaction times and thinking are sometimes slower when drinking? Or that your speech becomes slurred? Do you go from feeling energized to feeling sleepy?
That’s because, like other depressants, alcohol slows your central nervous system. It interferes with the communication pathways in the brain, causing difficulty with speech, balance, judgment, and memory. In more severe cases, alcohol also interferes with critical functions like temperature control, heart rate, and breathing6.
Excessive drinking can result in an alcohol overdose. Symptoms include trouble breathing, a slowed heart rate, low body temperature, extreme confusion, and difficulty staying conscious. Alcohol overdoses can lead to permanent brain damage and death.
Alcohol’s Depressant Effects and Your Health and Safety
In summary, despite some stimulant effects, alcohol is considered a depressant, and has similar short- and long-term impacts to other depressants. Alcohol can slow your reaction time, putting you at greater risk for accidents. And if you combine it with other depressants, you should expect a magnified, and often dangerous, effect on your nervous system.
On top of the short-term risks, alcohol’s depressant effects on your brain have some long-term consequences. Chronic alcohol misuse often causes an imbalance in GABA (one of your body’s natural calming neurochemicals). This can cause your nervous system to become overstimulated if you stop drinking, with consequences ranging from mild anxiety to seizures.
In other words, if you choose to drink alcohol, you should expect consequences similar to other depressants. In moderation, these effects may be pleasant. But chronic or excessive drinking will impact your nervous system negatively in some of the same ways other depressant drugs will.
If you’re struggling with your alcohol use and would like to cut down, there are new solutions available, including online treatment. Ria Health offers customized support to reduce your drinking through an app on your phone. Learn more about how it works.