Is Alcohol a Depressant or Stimulant? – Alcohol is categorized as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, but the answer is a bit more complicated than that. The use of alcohol, depending on the level consumed and a person’s reaction, can cause both sedating and stimulating effects.
For instance, increased heart rate and aggressiveness are two effects that are commonly linked to the use of a stimulant, but cognitive and motor skill impairments are symptoms more often associated with a depressant.
Some experts posit that individuals who are at an increased risk of developing an addiction to alcohol do not react as profoundly to alcohol’s sedating effects as many others do. In fact, alcohol use disorder is more strongly associated with an increased stimulatory response to alcohol.
Alcohol affects the brain and body in a number of ways. For one, it binds to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, a neurochemical responsible for producing feelings of relaxation and drowsiness as well as a reduction in breathing and heart rate. It also inhibits the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, which works to stimulate the CNS.
In addition to its actions on glutamate and GABA, alcohol also releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical responsible for pleasure and reward. As dopamine levels increase, feelings of euphoria begin to onset, and those who are most affected may continue to drink alcohol in an effort to maintain the dopamine high. As increasing amounts of alcohol are consumed, however, more depressant effects will continue to develop.
In summary, alcohol does not excite the CNS. Instead, it is the excessive release of dopamine that produces feelings of pleasure and reward that may sometimes be mistaken for extra energy. But this effect is misleading, unfortunately—as a person continues to consume alcohol, the CNS continues to become increasingly depressed despite the boost of dopamine that has occurred.
Combining Alcohol With Other Substances
Alcohol, as noted, is a CNS depressant not unlike benzodiazepines, sedatives, and muscle relaxers. All these substances work to reduce activity in the brain and body. When alcohol is combined with another depressant, the risk of life-threatening CNS depression increases significantly. Moreover, when CNS activity becomes profoundly depressed, the risk of coma and death is a very real and present danger.
Conversely, stimulants increase activity in the CNS and including substances like caffeine, amphetamines, and cocaine. Some people also use stimulants as they are drinking alcohol to counteract its depressant effects. The combined use of stimulants and alcohol, however, has the potential to be even more dangerous. Indeed, a person may continue to drink alcohol while feeling elated from stimulant use, and operate under the false belief that he or she is not at risk for the adverse consequences associated with alcohol’s sedative effects.
In fact, combining alcohol with short-acting stimulants such as cocaine is especially dangerous because alcohol’s depressant effects can persist long after the effects of the stimulant have abated. Mixing cocaine and alcohol increases the risk of death by 20 times over the use of either on its own.
Using alcohol, in combination with other stimulants such as amphetamines, increases the risk of seizures and heart-related conditions such as irregular heartbeat and heart attack. Also, continuing to use alcohol while intoxicated by stimulants increases the risk of alcohol poisoning. This can be a life-threatening condition for those who reach a blood alcohol concentration of .4 or higher.
Finally, alcohol and other mind-altering drugs can produce severe psychological effects, such as major depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, irritability, aggression, delusions, and hallucinations. The risk for such serious complications may be increased when multiple substances are used, as the effects of some substances compete against each other. In contrast, some substances amplify each other and can be highly unpredictable and dangerous.
Getting Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Persons suffering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol are urged to enroll in one of our comprehensive treatment programs. Our residential and partial hospitalization programs feature evidence-based services, such as psychotherapy, individual and family counseling, group support, substance abuse education, aftercare planning, and much, much more.
Alcohol addiction is a severe and potentially life-threatening disease that requires long-term treatment and support. Although there is no one cure for alcoholism, it can be effectively treated using a well-rounded approach to recovery. Those who receive effective treatment can reclaim their lives and begin experience long-lasting sobriety and wellness.
Our center offers a safe, structured environment and licensed addiction specialists. Our staff members are trained to identify and address the needs of each person using an in-depth, custom approach to addiction treatment.
If you or someone you love is dependent on alcohol or other substances, please seek treatment as soon as possible. Call us now to discuss treatment options, and discover how we help people free themselves from the vicious cycle of addiction for life!