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Is Alcohol a Depressant?

Alcohol can produce stimulating effects, but it is a depressant. Alcohol affects your central nervous system (CNS), impacting the way your brain communicates with the nerves in your body. 


Depressants affect the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which slows down your brain activity. This can lead to side effects such as relaxation, drowsiness, slurred speech, decreased inhibition, and problems with coordination.


In addition, glugging alcohol and in large amounts can lead to more severe symptoms, such as memory loss, coma, even death.


While alcohol can have some stimulating effects (like increased heart rate and anxiety), these effects are brief. Alcohol is a depressant that slows down your central nervous system, leading to decreased blood pressure, drowsiness, poor coordination, and reduced alertness. It can also cause other side effects, including a risk for dependence and addiction.


What Makes Alcohol a Depressant?

Alcohol is a depressant because it slows down the communication between the brain and body. Specifically, alcohol acts on the body's central nervous system. It disrupts the neurotransmitters in your brain that are responsible for transmitting information. This can affect your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.


It acts on an inhibitory neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA makes nerve cells less able to send, receive, or create signals. In other words, it reduces activity in the brain.


The immediate effects of drinking alcohol can help you feel more relaxed, more confident, and less inhibited. However, as these short-term effects wear off, other effects begin to take hold. This includes feelings of anger, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions.


How Depressants Affect the Body

It's a common misconception that alcohol is a stimulant because it produces many stimulating effects like increased heart rate, alertness, and aggression. 


For some, alcohol can increase confidence and self-esteem. It can also decrease feelings of anxiety and make some people chatty or sociable, even energized. It can also feel rewarding to drink, as alcohol releases dopamine in the brain, encouraging you to keep drinking. These "feel good" effects, however, are short-lived.  


Depressants are commonly known as "downers," as they typically reduce stimulation.


In addition to alcohol (aka ethanol), there are barbituratesbenzodiazepines, and sedative-hypnotic drugs, among other depressants. Some of the most common depressants include: 

  • Xanax

  • Valium

  • Halcion

  • Klonopin


These drugs are often used to treat anxiety, minimize pain, relieve muscle spasms and sleep disorders, and address other mental health issues.


Some are safer than others, but all produce lower levels of awareness in the brain and cause the activity in the CNS to slow down. 


Risk of Dependence and Addiction

As one of the most widely used and socially accepted drugs in the world, alcohol is easily abused. A common psychoactive drug, alcohol, alters your consciousness, thoughts, and mood. It can be tempting to drink for the "mood-boosting" side effects, but this can lead to alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence. 


Side Effects of Alcohol and Other Depressants

The effects of alcohol depend primarily on how much and how quickly you drink, along with varying factors such as your personal history, genetics, body size, gender, tolerance, and other vital factors.


Common side effects of alcohol use include:

  • Low blood pressure

  • Loss of coordination

  • Slurred speech

  • Blurred vision

  • Headache 

  • Reduced reaction time

  • Nausea 

  • Vomiting

  • Dizziness 

  • Impaired mental functioning

  • Slow breathing

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Loss of memory


Short-Term Risks of Alcohol

Drinking too much can lead to alcohol poisoning, respiratory failure, coma, or death. If you've experienced an overdose, you may experience mental confusion, vomiting, unconsciousness, slow heart rate, low body temperature, bluish skin, and irregular breathing, among other symptoms.


Long-Term Alcohol Risks

Some long-term effects of alcohol misuse include:

  • Injuries

  • Liver disease

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Chronic health conditions

  • Anxiety

  • Depression


Prolonged alcohol consumption is also closely linked to cancer and suicide.


Alcohol's Complications

Studies have found that heavy drinkers, when compared to light or non-drinkers, may be more likely to experience greater stimulant and rewarding responses from alcohol than sedative effects. This may put them at a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD).


Drinking can be harmful to anyone, regardless of their susceptibility to alcohol misuse or dependence. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding excessive drinking whenever possible, including binge drinking, heavy drinking, or drinking if you're pregnant or younger than 21 years old.


Alcohol is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths every year. This is equivalent to 261 deaths per day.


While it may feel good to drink, alcohol changes the chemicals in your brain, impacting your thoughts and behaviors.


As your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises, so do the risks. Abusing alcohol can not only harm your health and mental health, but it can also hurt those around you, especially if you engage in risky behaviors while under the influence, like driving, having unprotected sex, or fighting.

 

Treatment for Alcohol Misuse

No matter how severe your alcohol misuse, recovery from this type of depressant is possible. When you speak with a mental health professional, you can determine the best treatment plan for you and your situation. Treatment options may include medication or therapy.


Medication

If you're undergoing alcohol withdrawal symptoms or want to reduce alcohol cravings, you may be prescribed medication. The FDA-approved options include naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram.


Naltrexone may also be used to reduce drinking without quitting cold turkey. This approach, known as the Sinclair Method, aims to reduce drinking by having people take naltrexone when consuming alcohol.


Because the medication blocks the reward signals, people may find drinking less rewarding and begin to consume less over time.


Therapy 

Different types are available, including trauma-specific therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and individual, family, or group therapy. Options for support groups include Alcoholics Anonymous, Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART), or Women for Sobriety (WFS), among others.


What works for you might not work for someone else, so know alternative programs are available.


Takeaway

Alcohol affects everyone a little differently. Even if you're drinking the same alcoholic beverage at the same rate as someone else, your reactions will differ. It's important to remember that alcohol is a depressant, and you can overdose if you drink too much. Excessive drinking can also harm your finances, relationships, and physical and mental health, so it's important to seek professional care if it becomes a problem. 


If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol misuse, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.


If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.


For more mental health resources, see the National Helpline Database.


GETTING HELP

 

Call Another Solution if you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, substance abuse, anxiety, or depression and need help. Our non-profit organization offers free clinical evaluations and case management services to individuals and families who need them.

 

ANOTHER SOLUTION has helped individuals and their families find successful long-term recovery for over 25 years.

 

WE KNOW RECOVERY.

 

For Help, Call: 972-669-8395

Another Solution-The Missing Link to Long-term Sobriety



Contributed by Sarah Sheppard 

Updated on December 11, 2023

Medically reviewed John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE

Fact checked by Aaron Johnson

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