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Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

Alcohol produces some stimulant effects.

However, alcohol is considered a depressant. This means it slows your body down rather than energizes it.

Alcohol affects your central nervous system (CNS.) This alters the way your body communicates with the nerves in your body.

How alcohol affects you depends on:

  • Your body chemistry
  • How much alcohol you drink at once
  • Your alcohol tolerance

Alcohol affects many people differently. Some people report stimulant effects. Others report depressant effects.

This article reviews the effects of alcohol, both as a stimulant and a depressant.

Stimulants vs. Depressants

Stimulants and depressants both alter your nervous system and brain function. However, they affect them in opposite ways.

Stimulants speed up the body’s central nervous system (CNS.)

This is because alcohol alters neurotransmitters’ levels in the brain. This includes “excitatory” and “inhibitory” neurotransmitters that cause stimulant and depressant effects.

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. They can also make you feel jittery and impulsive.17

Examples of stimulants include:

  • Caffeine
  • Prescription amphetamines
  • Cocaine

Depressants 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

Examples of depressants include:

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Prescription opiates

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.

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 wrongly classified as a stimulant. This is because some people experience stimulant effects while drinking. 

Common stimulant effects of alcohol include:

  • Increased talkativeness
  • Increased energy or excitement
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Increased aggression 
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased impulsiveness and lowered inhibitions
  • Feelings of happiness

Drinking alcohol causes the release of dopamine or norepinephrine. This can lead to stimulant effects and alcohol addiction.

High-risk drinkers tend to experience more significant stimulant effects than light drinkers. 

Does Alcohol Have Depressant Effects?

Alcohol is officially classified as a depressant drug. This is because it slows down brain function and neural activity.

Drinking alcohol can overstimulate GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) pathways.

GABA is a neurotransmitter that reduces energy levels and slows down the central nervous system. It also plays a role in memory. This is why drinking alcohol can cause memory loss.

Common depressant effects of alcohol include:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Tiredness
  • Light-headedness
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed breathing
  • Nausea

In high concentrations, serious depressant effects of alcohol include:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Vomiting
  • Depression
  • Coma
  • Death
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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.

They may include:

  • Sadness, anxiety, or feelings of ‘emptiness’
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities
  • Reduced energy or tiredness
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Restlessness
  • Struggles with decision-making, concentrating, or memory
  • Sleep disorders
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide and suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains
  • Headaches
  • Cramps
  • Digestive problems

Multiple studies show a strong correlation between alcohol abuse and depression. Approximately 63% of alcohol-dependent people have depression.11

There is a link between a higher amount of alcohol consumption and the level of depression symptoms. The more a person drinks, the more likely that person is to develop major depression. If you have an alcohol use disorder and a mental health problem, it is essential to seek help for both conditions. 

However, even moderate alcohol consumption can lead to depression symptoms. 

Alcohol abuse can produce or worsen depression symptoms by affecting levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Alcohol use reduces the amount of tryptophan in the body. This is an amino acid needed for serotonin production. Serotonin 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, including suicidal thoughts or actions. As many as 15% of alcoholics are at risk of death by suicide.19

Alcohol abuse can also interfere with depression treatment and the use of healthier coping mechanisms.

Depression in an alcohol-addicted person may also lower their capabilities to resist alcohol. It can 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

Inpatient treatment is an addiction treatment program in which patients receive 24-hour structured and intensive care in a dedicated treatment facility. Inpatient treatment is also called residential treatment.

Some examples of inpatient treatment include:

  • Therapeutic communities
  • Short-term residential treatment
  • Recovery housing

Inpatient treatment can be very effective for those with severe alcohol problems or co-occurring disorders like depression.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatments are part-time, non-residential addiction treatment programs.

This type of treatment is less disruptive to a patient’s life. During treatment, the patient lives at home and can attend school or work.

Outpatient treatment for substance abuse usually includes regular visits to a treatment center for:

  • Counseling
  • Medication support
  • Both

Medical Detox

Medical detox is otherwise known as medically supervised withdrawal or ‘detoxification.' Detox 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
  • Anxiety

Withdrawal symptoms are managed with medications along with:

  • Vitamins
  • Exercise
  • 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.

Detox is the first step toward recovery. It should be used in preparation for other treatments.

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. It can also help them 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 short-term therapy. It only requires 12-24 sessions to experience results.

Contingency Management (CM) or Motivational Incentives

This therapy involves giving awards to individuals to support positive behavioral change.

Motivational Enhancement Therapy

This therapy uses motivational interviewing techniques to help patients resolve concerns about quitting substance use. 

The Matrix Model

This structured, multi-part behavioral treatment consists of evidence-based practices, including:

The model utilizes a combination of:

  • CBT
  • Family education
  • Social support
  • Individual counseling
  • Urine drug testing
Twelve-Step Facilitation Therapy 

This therapy is typically delivered in 12 weekly sessions.

It is 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.

For example:

  • Mental disorders
  • Social pressures
  • Family conflict

Resources

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(1) Alcohol and Drug Foundation. “Depressants.” Depressants , Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 28 Jan. 2020

(2) Alcohol and Drug Foundation. “Stimulants.” Stimulants , Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 28 Jan. 2020

(3) National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Feb. 2018

(4) Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (2020, February 18). 

(5) Brabant, Christian, et al. “Stimulant and Motivational Effects of Alcohol: Lessons from Rodent and Primate Models.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, Elsevier, 12 Mar. 2014

(6) 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

(7) 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

(8) DiSalvo, David. “What Alcohol Really Does to Your Brain.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 12 Aug. 2015

(9) Hendler, Reuben A., et al. “Stimulant and Sedative Effects of Alcohol.” SpringerLink, Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1 May 2011

(10) 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

(11) 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

(12) 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

(13) National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 24 July 2020

(14) 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

(15) Trevisan, Louis A, et al. Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2020

(16) 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

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

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

(19) Pompili, Maurizio et al. “Suicidal behavior and alcohol abuse.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 7,4 (2010): 1392-431

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