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Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?
Most addictive drugs fall into two categories: stimulants and depressants. Stimulants speed up the body’s central nervous system (CNS) and can make a person feel awake, alert, more confident, and energetic. Depressants decrease arousal and stimulation and slow down the body’s CNS.
Alcohol affects many people differently; some report stimulant effects, and some report depressant effects while drinking alcohol. This is because alcohol alters neurotransmitters’ levels in the brain, including “excitatory” and “inhibitory” neurotransmitters that cause stimulant and depressant effects.
Alcohol is officially classified as a depressant drug because it slows down brain function and neural activity. Alcohol drinking can overstimulate GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) pathways. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces energy levels and slows down the central nervous system.
GABA also plays a role in memory, which is why alcohol drinking can cause memory loss. Common depressant effects of alcohol include sedative effects and drowsiness. In high concentrations, adverse depressant effects of alcohol include unconsciousness, coma, and even death.
Stimulants vs. Depressants
Stimulants and depressants both alter your nervous system and brain function. However, they affect them in opposite ways.
Stimulants excite your nervous system. They may heighten your blood pressure and heart rate. They may also give you more energy. However, in large doses, stimulants can lead to insomnia and make you feel jittery and impulsive.17
Examples of stimulants include caffeine, prescription amphetamines, and cocaine.
Depressants, on the other hand, slow you down by reducing your heart rate and pressure. Depressants may help you feel more relaxed. On the extreme end, they can sedate you.18
Benzodiazepines are one type of depressant drug class used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Prescription opiates are potent types of depressant drugs.
Some compounds may have characteristics of both stimulants and depressants. For example, nicotine. However, nicotine is usually characterized as a stimulant.
Alcohol is also primarily a depressant but possesses some stimulant effects.9 You should never mix alcohol and stimulant or depressant drugs because of the risk of severe side effects.
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Does Alcohol Have Stimulant Effects?
Alcohol is often misclassified as a stimulant because some people experience stimulant effects while drinking.
Common stimulant effects of alcohol include:
- Feeling a ‘warm glow’
- Increased talkativeness
- Increased energy or excitement
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased aggression
- Increased impulsiveness and lowered inhibitions
- Feelings of happiness or euphoria
Alcohol drinking causes the release of dopamine or norepinephrine, which can lead to stimulant effects and alcohol addiction. Studies have shown that high-risk drinkers, or those more predisposed toward alcohol abuse, binge drinking, and alcohol dependence, tend to experience more significant stimulant effects than light drinkers.
Does Alcohol Cause Depression?
Many drug or alcohol-addicted patients also have mental health disorders such as depression. Clinical depression (major depressive disorder) is a common but serious mood disorder.
Symptoms of depression vary depending on the patient but may include:
- Sadness, anxiety, or feelings of ‘emptiness’
- Pessimism or feelings of hopelessness
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities
- Decreased energy or tiredness
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Struggles with decision-making, concentrating, or remembering
- Sleep disorders
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide and suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems
Multiple studies show a strong correlation between alcohol abuse and depression. According to one study, approximately 63% of alcohol-dependent people have depression. Many studies show a correlation between a higher amount of alcohol consumption and the level of depression symptoms. Studies show that the more a person drinks, the more likely that person is to develop major depression. However, even moderate alcohol consumption can lead to depression symptoms.
Alcohol abuse can produce or worsen depression symptoms by altering levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Alcohol use reduces the availability of tryptophan, an amino acid needed for serotonin production, which regulates mood. Low serotonin levels are connected to depression. This is why many alcohol drinkers can experience depression symptoms during a hangover.
Heavy alcohol consumption can also result in feelings of depression such as guilt, hopelessness, low self-worth, and suicidal thoughts or actions. As many as 15% of alcoholics are at risk of death by suicide.
Alcohol abuse can also interfere with depression treatment and the adoption of healthier coping mechanisms. Depression in an alcohol-addicted person may also lower their resolve to resist alcohol use and lead them to drink alcohol to relieve depression symptoms.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Treatment options for alcohol use disorder (alcohol addiction/alcoholism) include:
Inpatient treatment, also called residential treatment, is a type of addiction treatment program in which patients receive 24-hour structured and intensive care in a dedicated treatment facility.
Some examples of inpatient treatment include therapeutic communities, short-term residential treatment, and recovery housing. Inpatient treatment can be very effective for those with severe alcohol problems or co-occurring disorders like depression.
Outpatient treatments are part-time, non-residential addiction treatment programs. Outpatient treatment or rehab is less disruptive to a patient’s life because, during treatment, the patient resides at their home and can attend school or work.
Outpatient treatment for substance abuse usually includes regular visits to a treatment center for counseling, medication support, or both.
Medical detox, otherwise known as medically supervised withdrawal, or simply ‘detoxification’, is when a patient is weaned off a substance while under medical supervision in a hospital.
Medical supervision is often necessary to address the physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, including tremors, nausea, sleep disturbances, restlessness, and anxiety.
Withdrawal symptoms are managed with medications as well as vitamins, exercise, and sleep.
Medical detox is highly effective in preventing the serious medical consequences associated with alcohol use cessation. However, medical detox is not effective as a lone treatment for alcohol use disorder.
Medical detox is the first step toward recovery and should be used in preparation for treatment.
Many types of behavioral therapies are used in the treatment of alcohol use disorder (AUD). These therapies can help patients recognize the impact of their alcohol use and learn how to change their behavior to control their alcohol use disorder.
The most common behavioral therapies that have been productive in treating alcohol use disorder in the United States include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
This therapy involves techniques to modify behaviors and improve coping skills by identifying dysfunctional thinking. CBT is considered a short-term therapy because it only requires 12-24 sessions to experience results.
Contingency Management (CM) or Motivational Incentives
This therapy involves giving tangible awards to individuals to support positive behavioral change.
Motivational Enhancement Therapy
This therapy uses motivational interviewing techniques to help patients resolve uncertainties about substance use cessation.
The Matrix Model
This structured, multi-part behavioral treatment consists of evidence-based practices, including relapse prevention, family therapy, group therapy, drug education, and self-help.
The model utilizes a combination of CBT, family education, social support, individual counseling, and urine drug testing.
Twelve-Step Facilitation Therapy
This therapy is typically delivered in 12 weekly sessions and designed to prepare individuals to understand, accept, and engage in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or similar 12-step programs.
Family behavior therapy (FBT)
This therapy addresses not only the patient’s substance use but other issues that their family or loved ones may also be experiencing, such as mental disorders, social pressures, and family conflict.
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