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What is Alcohol?

Many Americans drink alcohol at least occasionally, usually for social reasons. For most people, moderate alcohol consumption is considered safe. But consuming less alcohol is better for your health than drinking more.

Some people should not drink at all. Drinking too much alcohol can be harmful to your health and may lead to an alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

If you drink, it is essential to know how alcohol affects you and how much is too much.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Body?

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. This means that alcohol is a drug that slows down brain activity. It can alter your mood, behavior, and self-control.2

Drinking alcohol can lead to problems with memory and thinking clearly. It can also affect your coordination and physical control. 

In addition, alcohol affects the other organs in your body. For example, it can heighten your blood pressure and heart rate. If you consume too much alcohol at once, you may throw up or experience alcohol intoxication.


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Why is Alcohol Considered a Depressant?

In larger doses, alcohol changes from a stimulant to a depressant. It slows down your nervous system, heart rate, and blood pressure. This leads to mental fogginess, tiredness, and lack of coordination.

People who have ingested large quantities of alcohol often have slower reaction times. They may appear tired, disorientated, or sedated. Higher amounts of alcohol can also reduce dopamine production, which can make you feel sad.

The depressant effects of alcohol develop when your BAC hits around 0.08 mg/l. Once your BAC reaches 0.2 mg/l or higher, its depressant effects on your respiratory system can become so overbearing that they lead to coma or death.

The Difference Between ‘Depressants’ and ‘Stimulants’

Stimulants and depressants both affect your brain function and central nervous system. However, they do so in opposite ways. 

Stimulants heighten and excite your central nervous system. They may increase your heart rate and blood pressure, resulting in more energy. In high quantities, they can lead to insomnia and make you jittery and impulsive.3

Examples of stimulants include weak or mild caffeine, more potent prescription amphetamines, and illegal drugs like cocaine.

Depressants slow you down by reducing your heart rate and blood pressure. They may help you feel relaxed. On the extreme end, they may sedate you entirely.4

Benzodiazepines are a type of depressant drug. They are used to treat anxiety disorders and insomnia. Prescription opiates are another type of potent depressant drug.

Some compounds can have characteristics of both depressant and stimulant drugs. Nicotine is one example, although it is most frequently characterized as a stimulant.

Alcohol is another example, which is typically characterized as a depressant but has stimulant effects.

You should avoid mixing alcohol with depressant or stimulant drugs due to the risk of severe side effects.


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Can Alcohol Cause Depression (& Vice Versa)?

Research has shown that there is a link and bidirectional relationship between alcohol dependence and depressive disorders. Both disorders may exist together, each condition heightens the risk for the other disorder, and each disorder can worsen the other.6

Regardless of which disorder came first, both issues co-occur often and are among the most common psychiatric disorders.7

The pathways resulting in the development of co-occurring alcohol use disorder and depression are complex and intertwined. Some people may be genetically susceptible to both disorders. For others, symptoms of depression can influence the development of an alcohol or drug abuse problem.

One likely contributor to co-occurrence is that people may worsen a depressive disorder with substances like alcohol. People who have major depressive symptoms may rely on alcohol to help with their symptoms and ‘feel better.’ However, over time, this can lead to an alcohol or substance use disorder.

Even in circumstances where an individual does not develop alcohol addiction, self-medication is unlikely to be helpful long-term. This is because self-medication with alcohol is linked to increased psychiatric comorbidity and stress levels, as well as a lower quality of life.

It is essential to understand that the co-occurrence of alcohol use disorder and depressive disorders, especially major depressive disorder and persistent depressive disorder, is linked to higher severity and a worse prognosis than either condition alone. This includes an increased risk for suicidal behavior. 

What are the Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Depression?

Symptoms of depression may include:

  • Feeling worthless
  • Sadness
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  • Lack of energy to complete daily tasks
  • Challenges concentrating
  • Guilt
  • Substance use/misuse
  • Suicidal thoughts

Symptoms of alcohol use disorder may include:

  • Drinking too much alcohol in any one episode
  • Drinking frequently
  • Continually craving alcohol
  • Sneaking alcohol so others will not notice it
  • Continuing to drink alcohol despite adverse consequences, both to physical health and personal relationships
  • Avoiding activities to drink alcohol
  • Continued drinking despite symptoms of depression

Dangers of Mixing Alcohol With Other Depressants

Combining medicines (prescribed or not) with alcohol can lead to unpredictable and unwanted results. It is essential to understand the dangers of mixing alcohol with other depressants to avoid them.

Consuming alcohol with other depressants like Xanax or Valium can have a synergistic effect, with potential for dangerous or even lethal consequences.10 

The combination may lead to the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Stumbling
  • Loss of sphincter control
  • Memory loss
  • Death

Signs of Alcohol Misuse & Addiction

Symptoms of alcohol use disorder may be mild, moderate, or severe, based on the number of symptoms experienced. 

Signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse and addiction may include: 11

  • Being unable to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink 
  • Wanting to reduce how much alcohol you drink or making unsuccessful attempts to do so 
  • Spending a lot of time drinking, finding alcohol, or recovering from alcohol consumption
  • Experiencing an intense craving or urge to drink alcohol
  • Failing to fulfill major responsibilities at work, school, or home due to repeated alcohol use 
  • Continuing to consume alcohol even though you know it is causing physical, social, or interpersonal issues
  • Giving up or reducing social and work activities and hobbies 
  • Drinking alcohol in situations where it is not safe, like when driving or swimming
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol, so you require more to feel its effect, or you have a lessened impact from the same amount
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like nausea, sweating, and shaking when you do not drink
  • Drinking to avoid withdrawal symptoms

Treatment Options for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Most people with an alcohol or drug addiction can benefit from treatment. Medical treatments and therapies include medicines and behavioral sessions. For many patients, using both in a professional treatment facility provides the best results.12

People receiving treatment for alcohol use disorder may also find it beneficial to meet at support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). If you have an alcohol use disorder and a mental health problem, it is essential to seek help for both conditions. 

Some patients may require intensive treatment for AUD. They may visit a rehab center for residential treatment. 

Treatment at a rehab center is highly structured. It typically includes several different types of behavioral therapies. It may also include medication for detox, otherwise known as alcohol withdrawal.


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Alcohol, MedlinePlus, July 2021

Abrahao, Karina P et al. “Alcohol and the Brain: Neuronal Molecular Targets, Synapses, and Circuits.” Neuron vol. 96,6 (2017)

NIDA. "Prescription Stimulants DrugFacts." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 6 Jun. 2018

NIDA. "Prescription CNS Depressants DrugFacts." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 6 Mar. 2018

Hendler, Reuben A et al. “Stimulant and sedative effects of alcohol.” Current topics in behavioral neurosciences vol. 13 (2013)

McHugh, R Kathryn, and Roger D Weiss. “Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorders.” Alcohol research : current reviews vol. 40,1 arcr.v40.1.01. 1 Jan. 2019

Depression, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) 

Fergusson DM, Boden JM, Horwood LJ. Tests of Causal Links Between Alcohol Abuse or Dependence and Major Depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(3):260–266

Turner, Sarah et al. “Self-medication with alcohol or drugs for mood and anxiety disorders: A narrative review of the epidemiological literature.” Depression and anxiety vol. 35,9 (2018): 851-860. doi:10.1002/da.22771

The Effects of Combining Alcohol with Other Drugs, University Health Service, University of Michigan, https://uhs.umich.edu/combine 

Alcohol use disorder, Mayo Clinic, July 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) Treatment, MedlinePlus, May 2021, https://medlineplus.gov/alcoholusedisorderaudtreatment.html

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