Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

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The human body is incredibly complex, and oftentimes its initial response to substances and circumstances may not fully represent their long-term effects. The physiological response to  alcohol can be especially misunderstood. As a physician on the Monument platform, one question many of my patients have is if alcohol is a stimulant or a depressant. While alcohol may replicate a stimulant in the short term, understanding why it’s actually a depressant can help illuminate the long-term effects of alcohol on the body and the benefits of sobriety or alcohol moderation. 

What is the difference between a depressant and a stimulant? 

To understand why alcohol is a depressant, it’s important to make this distinction. A depressant is a chemical that slows the central nervous system. The slowing of the central nervous system in turn slows down brain function and brain activity, which can cause a lack of concentration, coordination, and alertness. A drug or substance that has a depressant effect or sedative effect on the Central Nervous System is called a CNS depressant. On the other hand, a stimulant is a chemical that speeds up central nervous system activity, causing an increase in alertness, attention and energy. A stimulant also often leads to an increased heart rate and increased brain activity or brain function. When assessing if a substance is a stimulant or a depressant, it’s important to look beyond just the immediate, often euphoric, effects. Whether a substance is classified as a stimulant or a depressant is based on its long-term, cumulative impact on nervous system tissues.  

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The common misconception that alcohol is a stimulant

Some people falsely assume that alcohol is a stimulant because the initial effect of drinking can include becoming chatty, more confident, or more assertive. This ‘stimulating’ phenomenon is explained by a surge in the release of dopamine in the tissues of the brain after the first few sips of alcohol. Dopamine can be thought of as a “feel-good” or pleasure chemical. As more alcohol is consumed, dopamine is continuously released, and has a stimulating effect that can make it especially challenging to stop drinking. Dopamine also causes a chain-reaction that stirs up a rush of chemicals called ß-endorphins, which are more “feel-good” chemicals. Drinking alcohol and the resulting dopamine and ß-endorphins rush can also cause an increased heart rate. This flood of dopamine and ß-endorphins is very short-lived (approximately 30-75 minutes) depending on the amount and potency of alcohol consumed. 

This dopamine reaction is also the reason people can develop alcohol cravings and why others might take naltrexone to combat them. Naltrexone benefits include indirectly decreasing the release of dopamine, and helping to weaken the association between alcohol and pleasure.   Naltrexone is a medication to stop drinking that can be prescribed by a physician on the Monument platform if safe and appropriate. 

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Is alcohol ever considered a stimulant?

Alcohol is only considered a stimulant when paired with stimulating substances. There have been many examples of this through time. From the “hot toddy” liquor paired with coffee to recent caffeine-alcohol beverages (CAB’s) or energy drinks like Four Loko. These drinks are a dangerous mix of caffeine (a stimulant) and alcohol (a depressant). This combination of substances sends your central nervous system very mixed messages, and can have significant health consequences 

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So alcohol is classified as a depressant, what does that mean?

Alcohol is classified as a neurocognitive depressant because it “depresses” the central nervous system. This means it slows down communication between the brain and the body, which causes impairment such as speech slurring, motor incoordination, brain fog, delayed reaction time, disorientation, intoxication, memory loss, and black-outs. As alcohol is consumed more and more, the depressant effects also become more likely to develop. While some may seek the sedative effect of alcohol in an effort to relax, alcohol consumption is also proven to exacerbate anxiety and depression in the long-term. 

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How does alcohol consumption interact with depression?

Another common question I get is “how will a depressant affect my pre-existing depression?” Research shows that if a person has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and they also meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, continuing to consume alcohol will worsen and intensify their depression, and make them less responsive to mental health treatment. Another concern can be the interaction between alcohol and the pharmaceutical medication prescribed to treat mental health conditions. Speaking with your health care provider directly can provide the most clarity on what is safe for you. Additionally, with a patient’s permission, the physicians at Monument can coordinate care with psychiatric prescribers to ensure your mental health care and substance health care are coordinated and well-managed. 

For anyone navigating depression and seeking relief through drinking alcohol, you are not alone. You deserve healthier coping mechanisms. Tools like online alcohol treatment can help you navigate intense emotions, restructure negative thought patterns, and so much more. Therapy is a great tool for addressing unhealthy alcohol use and depression simultaneously. You deserve support and relief, and it’s within reach. 

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Understanding the effect alcohol has on your body and your life is a major step towards cultivating a happier and healthier version of you. Learning more about this topic today is already something to be proud of. There are many options to help you change your relationship with alcohol and its depressant effect. These include medication, specialized alcohol therapy, and therapist-moderated support groups. There’s great relief and healing that comes with freedom from substances, and we’re here to help you get there.

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Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Amy MilesDr. Miles graduated from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and completed her family medicine residency at Meadville Medical Center. As well as being a physician, she is also a board-certified lactation consultant and finds joy in cherishing families from their first days. She came to realize her calling to addiction medicine early in her career as she witnessed first-hand the way addiction can affect family relationships and the way that deep, thoughtful care can help people down a healing path. Dr. Miles is dually board-certified in both family medicine and addiction medicine and serves as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Addictive Diseases. One of her favorite "factoids" is that the word "doctor" is from the Latin "docere", which means, "teacher". She takes this to mean that all physicians have a burden to educate and by so doing, to always pursue learning, and to consider all angles for solutions to obstacles.