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Is Alcohol Considered a Drug?

When people think of drug use, drinking alcohol is usually not the first thing that comes to mind. People associate alcohol with social gatherings and good times with loved ones. Because of its more positive image and legal status, people often don’t consider alcohol a drug.

But while it may be more socially accepted, alcohol is a dangerous drug if misused. It affects a person’s ability to think clearly and use good judgment. Drinking too much can seriously damage both your body and your brain.

Why is it Classified as a Drug?

A drug is a substance that causes a change in consciousness and can lead to addiction.6

Alcohol is a drug because drinking alcohol depresses or slows down your central nervous system. Your central nervous system consists of your brain and spinal cord. It is responsible for four functions:

  1. Regulation of body temperature
  2. Physical coordination
  3. Memory and learning
  4. Physical reflexes

When you drink alcohol, it first goes to your stomach. From there, about 20% is absorbed into the bloodstream and travels straight to your brain.3 This can lead to a variety of health effects, including your mental state and vital functions.

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What are the Depressant Effects of Alcohol?

A person who has consumed large amounts of alcohol may appear confused and uncoordinated. Mental fog, slurred speech, and slow reflexes are common signs of alcohol consumption. 

One of the effects of alcohol includes drowsiness. For this reason, some people with sleep disorders drink alcohol to fall asleep. This is a mistake because alcohol reduces overall sleep quality.1

As alcohol consumption increases, more severe depressant effects are felt. These include decreased body temperature and slowed breathing.

What are the Stimulant Effects of Alcohol?

While considered a depressant drug, moderate alcohol consumption actually has mild stimulant effects. Stimulants raise your body’s production of dopamine, a chemical that produces feelings of well-being and motivation. 

Alcohol consumed in small quantities causes the brain to increase dopamine production. 

This leads to euphoria, increased sociability, and boosted confidence. People drink alcohol when they want to feel this stimulant effect (or ‘buzz’). 

For the same reason, some people with mood disorders like depression turn to alcohol to self-medicate. This is dangerous because alcohol addiction and mental health disorders are closely linked.7

Much like stimulants, small amounts of alcohol can increase your heart rate. This can lead to more impulsive behavior, as well as aggression.

However, as more is consumed, heart rate begins to slow down. Dopamine production is also inhibited, reversing earlier euphoric effects.

So how much alcohol is considered moderate consumption?  

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines a “standard drink” as 14 grams of alcohol.10 This includes: 

  • 12 oz of beer 
  • 5 oz of wine 
  • 1.5 oz of distilled spirits 

Moderate alcohol consumption is one drink per day for women and two per day for men.5

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Why is Alcohol Addictive? How Addictive is it?

The technical term for alcoholism is alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

17.6 million Americans suffer from alcohol use disorder, making it the second-most widespread substance addiction after tobacco.7

There are both physical and psychological factors behind this widespread drug addiction. 

The physical factors relate to how alcohol affects the brain’s production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry signals between neurons. Two examples of important neurotransmitters are endorphins and dopamine

Endorphins cause feelings of euphoria and can also suppress pain. Among other things, exercise, resolving stressful situations, and sex all produce endorphins.

Dopamine is linked to feelings of reward and motivation. It is often produced when your brain wants to reinforce certain behaviors. It is also linked to motor coordination (Parkinson’s patients are often prescribed dopamine-boosting medications). 

Drinking alcohol hijacks the chemical process behind endorphins and dopamine, causing them to flood the brain. The reward and pleasure centers of the brain are overloaded, leading to cravings. Those cravings are made even harder to resist when alcohol reduces impulse control. 

Psychological factors behind alcohol use disorder include maturity and mental illness.

Young people are vulnerable to alcohol use disorder.9 This is because they are more likely to engage in binge drinking. Binge drinking is drinking alcohol quickly for recreational purposes. 

Because their brains are still developing, this increases their chances of becoming dependent. They also experience peer pressure to drink, putting them at further risk for AUD.

Those suffering drug and alcohol dependence often have mood disorders. Some put this figure anywhere from 20 to 67 percent.12 

Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction 

These include:

  • Inability to quit drinking alcohol
  • Drinking alone
  • Cravings
  • Experiencing anxiety or depression when effects of alcohol wear off
  • Ignoring personal and professional obligations to drink

Who is at Risk of Alcohol Addiction?

Those at risk of AUD include:

  • Adolescents and young adults
  • People with family histories of alcoholism
  • Those with mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression
  • People from cultures in which excessive drinking is common

Other Dangers of Alcohol Use & Misuse

Alcohol is a drug that carries many risks. One of the biggest alcohol-related dangers is excessive drinking. Excessive drinking includes binge drinking, as well as heavy drinking. Heavy drinking is five or more episodes of binge drinking in a month. 

According to the CDC, between 2011 and 2015, there were 95,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States.

In the short-term, this includes overdoses, violence, suicide, and car crashes. It also includes miscarriages and stillbirths from pregnant women. Longer-term health risks include cancer, liver, and heart disease.2

Alcohol can also cause brain damage. It does this by inhibiting the development of dendrites.17 Dendrites are the parts of the neurons responsible for problem-solving, memory, and focus.16

Women who drink to excess while pregnant increase the risk of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in their children. Among other abnormalities, children born with FAS have a mean IQ of 79 which is significantly lower than the average IQ of 100.

Studies indicate excessive drinking of alcohol can even lower IQ in adults.13, 15

Treatment Options for Alcohol Misuse & Addiction 

Those who are suffering from alcohol addiction should seek medical attention. The first step will be a physical health exam. A health professional may also perform a series of imaging tests. 

By showing alcohol-related organ damage, these tests can provide evidence of alcohol use disorder. After this, addiction treatment should be pursued. 

Treatment for alcohol use depends on the severity of dependence, as well as if other drugs are involved. 

Consuming alcohol in excess can lead to other drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines. Drugs and alcohol interact with each other in ways that make the effects stronger and reinforce dependence.11 

Addiction treatment begins with detoxification (or ‘detox’ for short). A variety of sedative drugs can help manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Drugs used to treat alcohol addiction include:

  • Naltrexone
  • Disulfiram
  • Topiramate
  • Baclofen

The recovery process can take two to seven days. After this, treatment of the psychological issues at play can begin.

Addiction treatment programs for alcoholism can take a variety of forms. Approaches depend on the person in question and may include:

  • Inpatient or outpatient rehab to undergo professional medical detoxification and medication-assisted treatment (MAT), if necessary. 
  • Mindfulness therapy has shown success with adolescents.12 
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) aims to tackle the underlying disorders behind drug and alcohol use, such as depression and bipolar disorder. 
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) remains a popular option for those who prefer mutual support groups. 

Alcohol dependence carries serious health risks. It undermines a person’s willpower, making it difficult for them to stay sober without support. Addiction treatment is crucial to help them along their recovery journey. 

Resources

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Britton, Annie, et al. “The association between alcohol consumption and sleep disorders among older people in the general population.Nature, vol. 10, no. 5275. www.nature.com.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.www.cdc.gov, 2021.

Goldman, Heidi, and David Levine. “Is Alcohol a Depressant?health.usnews.com.

Mason, Barbara J and Heyser, Charles J. “Alcohol Use Disorder: The Role of Medication in Recovery.Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, vol. 41, no. 1, 2021. arcr.niaaa.nih.gov.

Mayo Clinic. “Alcohol use: Weighing risks and benefits.” www.mayoclinic.org.

Merriam-Webster. “Definition of drug (Entry 1 of 3).www.merriam-webster.com.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders.pubs.niaaa.nih.gov.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use in the United States.pubs.niaaa.nih.gov.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Underage Drinking.pubs.niaaa.nih.gov, 2006.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “What is a Standard Drink?pubs.niaaa.nih.gov

Jatlow, Peter; McCance, et al. “Alcohol plus Cocaine: The Whole Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts.Therapeutic drug monitoring, vol. 18, no. 4, 1996, pp. 460-464 journals.lww.com

Quello, Susan B., et al. “Mood Disorders and Substance Use Disorder: A Complex Comorbidity.Science & practice perspectives, vol. 3, no. 1, 2005, pp. 13-21. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

Rogne, Adrian F., et al. “Intelligence, alcohol consumption, and adverse consequences. A study of young Norwegian men.Scandinavian journal of public health, vol. 49, no. 4, 2021, pp. 411-418. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

Sancho, Marta, et al. “Mindfulness-Based Interventions for the Treatment of Substance and Behavioral Addictions: A Systematic Review.Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 9, 2018, p. 95. www.frontiersin.org.

Sjölund, Sara, et al. “IQ and Level of Alcohol Consumption—Findings from a National Survey of Swedish Conscripts.Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research, vol. 39, no. 3, 2015, pp. 548-55, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

The University of Queensland Australia. “What is a neuron?qbi.uq.edu.au.

Zhou, Feng C., et al. “Chronic Alcohol Drinking Alters Neuronal Dendritic Spines in the Brain Reward Center Nucleus Accumbens.” Brain research, vol. 1134, no. 1, 2007, pp. 148-61. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

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