Is Alcohol a Stimulant?

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 due to how alcohol alters neurotransmitters’ levels in the brain, including both “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.

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 
  • Hyperactivity
  • 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
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities
  • Decreased energy or tiredness
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Restlessness
  • 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 that is needed for the production of serotonin, 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

Inpatient Treatment

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 for those with co-occurring disorders like depression. 

Outpatient Treatment

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

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, can include 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.

Therapies

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 for the patient 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.

Resources

Alcohol and Drug Foundation. “Depressants.” Depressants , Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 28 Jan. 2020, https://adf.org.au/drug-facts/depressants/.

Alcohol and Drug Foundation. “Stimulants.” Stimulants , Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 28 Jan. 2020, https://adf.org.au/drug-facts/stimulants/.

National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Feb. 2018, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml.

Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (2020, February 18). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.

Brabant, Christian, et al. “Stimulant and Motivational Effects of Alcohol: Lessons from Rodent and Primate Models.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, Elsevier, 12 Mar. 2014, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091305714000768.

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2006. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 47.) Chapter 8. Intensive Outpatient Treatment Approaches. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64102/ 

Chung, Tammy, and Christopher S Martin. “Subjective Stimulant and Sedative Effects of Alcohol during Early Drinking Experiences Predict Alcohol Involvement in Treated Adolescents.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Rutgers University, Sept. 2009, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2741546/

DiSalvo, David. “What Alcohol Really Does to Your Brain.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 12 Aug. 2015, www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/10/16/what-alcohol-really-does-to-your-brain/.

Hendler, Reuben A., et al. “Stimulant and Sedative Effects of Alcohol.” SpringerLink, Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1 May 2011, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-642-28720-6_135.

King, Andrea C, et al. “Rewarding, Stimulant, and Sedative Alcohol Responses and Relationship to Future Binge Drinking.” Archives of General Psychiatry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4633413/

Kuria, Mary W, et al. “The Association between Alcohol Dependence and Depression before and after Treatment for Alcohol Dependence.” ISRN Psychiatry, International Scholarly Research Network, 26 Jan. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3658562/

McKay, James R, and Susanne Hiller-Sturmhofel. “Treating Alcoholism as a Chronic Disease: Approaches to Long-Term Continuing Care.” Alcohol Research & Health : the Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625994/

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 24 July 2020, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction.

NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator. “What Types of Alcohol Treatment Are Available?” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 14 Apr. 2020, https://alcoholtreatment.niaaa.nih.gov/what-to-know/types-of-alcohol-treatment

Trevisan, Louis A, et al. Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2020, https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/61-66.pdf

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Surgeon General, Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. Washington, DC: HHS, November 2016. https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-generals-report.pdf

Updated on: October 1, 2020
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Alcohol Rehab Help Writing Staff
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Annamarie Coy,
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