Alcohol is a stimulant. False! Alcohol is actually a depressant. You’re not alone if you didn’t know that, because most people typically feel energized after a drink or two. But it’s important to understand that alcohol affects the body and mind in specific ways that are different from what you would experience with a stimulant. And alcohol, like other depressants, is highly addictive.
The important question isn’t, “Is alcohol a stimulant or depressant?” What you should be asking is, “Am I abusing alcohol, and do I need help?” If the answer is yes, then you should seek professional alcohol addiction treatment in Texas.
Why Does Alcohol Give You Energy?
It’s not surprising that people are unsure if alcohol is a downer. Most people believe alcohol is a stimulant because of its euphoric effects, and there’s a good reason behind it. After people have their first beer, they tend to feel better. Some users even claim that a drink or two gives them a boost of energy.
Are drinkers lying then? Absolutely not.
During the early phases of consumption, alcohol is shown to increase confidence, lower inhibitions, and improve mood—all pleasant sensations. These positive feelings are due to the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain. Interestingly enough, even just the thought of drinking or watching a 30-second beer commercial can prompt the release of dopamine in some users. Taking just a sip of alcohol causes a spike in dopamine and highlights its importance behind alcohol-reinforced behavior.
And that added kick of energy? According to one study, that comes from increased levels of acetate, an energy-packed byproduct of alcohol metabolism, in the body.
Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?
So is alcohol an upper or downer? It helps to know the difference between stimulants and depressants to better understand alcohol’s effects on the body. Both types of substances trigger different psychological and physiological changes.
Stimulants or ‘Uppers’
A substance is classified as a stimulant (also known as an upper) or a depressant (AKA downer) based on the reaction it generates in the central nervous system. Stimulants and depressants are problematic on their own, but can be especially dangerous when used in combination.
Cocaine, meth, and prescription amphetamine drugs are examples of stimulants. Their effects on the body include:
- A rush of euphoria
- High energy levels and alertness
- Decreased appetite
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate
- Mood swings, dizziness, sweating
- Aggression and tremors (with chronic use)
Depressants or ‘Downers’
These substances include heroin and other opioid-based drugs, as well as the class of prescription medications called benzodiazepines (i.e.: Valium®, Xanax®). They trigger:
- A decrease in blood pressure and heart and respiratory rates
- Relaxation to the point of drowsiness
- Slower reaction times and movement
- Nausea or vomiting
- Confusion or lack of judgment
- Slurred speech
- Higher risk of memory loss or unconsciousness with overuse
You may be asking yourself, “Wait, is alcohol a stimulant? It sure sounds like it could be based on these characteristics.” While alcohol is formally classified as a depressant, it does have attributes of both types of substances. And it’s important to note that alcohol does not affect everyone the same way, so certain effects may be more pronounced than others, depending on how your body responds.
The Stimulating Effects of Alcohol
It’s not that far-fetched to assume alcohol is a stimulant. In fact, two alcohol-induced effects are alluded to in defense of that argument. For instance, it’s proven that alcohol (a) increases aggressive behavior and (b) heightens sexual and risk-taking behavior, effects both commonly caused by stimulants.
Don’t believe it? Just look at the research.
To measure aggressive behavior in humans as a result of drinking, scientists used something called the Taylor Aggression Paradigm (TAP). This is a prominent lab experiment, during which participants compete against a fake opponent in a competitive task, the loser of which gets a shock.
Add some drinks to the mix and what did they find?
Studies consistently found that participants under the influence delivered shocks at a higher intensity and a longer duration than those that were sober… Ouch! Similar aggressive behavior can be seen in those who’ve ingested amphetamines and bath salts, both well-known stimulants.
Alcohol & Risky Behavior
As for the heightened sexual and risk-taking behavior, there’s a general correlation between rising blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and risky behavior. This same risky sexual behavior can be observed in methamphetamine users, a subculture of which engages in “party and play” or “chemsex” while high. Also, elevated alcohol consumption makes people prone to indulge not just in risky behavior, such as drunk driving, but also in activities where the outcome is ambiguous, lowering their defenses even further.
In addition, research suggests that certain parts of the brain, such as the striatum, feel the stimulating effects of alcohol but not the depressant effects. This activity may also be a potential trigger for the brain’s dopamine reward system, which could increase the risk of alcohol dependency and addiction as the brain associates alcohol consumption with pleasure.
So with this evidence, why isn’t alcohol a stimulant? The answer has to do with time.
Unfortunately for chronic drinkers, these stimulating effects are short-lived and don’t make up the whole picture. Alcohol elicits more depressive side effects than it does stimulating ones. Just take a look at our good friend, the Biphasic Alcohol Effects Scale (BAES), thanks to our colleagues at the National Institute of Health.
As illustrated, alcohol-induced stimulation peaks at about 45 minutes. Afterward, these effects slowly dissipate, reaching their baseline in about 90 minutes. At that point, you can kiss your energy boost goodbye and start prepping for the impending grogginess!
But that’s for the average user. What about those struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD)?
According to Dr. David Newlin, heavy drinkers tend to have sharper and shorter peaks. That means alcoholics may experience greater feelings of euphoria and decreased feelings of drowsiness. Read that again. Slowly.
Researchers are suggesting that heavy drinkers may feel more of the positive effects of alcohol and less of the negative ones—a recipe that makes drinking in excess a lot more enticing. But don’t go tell that to your alcoholic uncle. Also, don’t tell him that these effects actually improve if he increases his intake (i.e. shots get the job done a lot better than beer).
Unfortunately, you may have to give him a word of warning before he goes out and gets a six-pack, thinking he’s scot-free. Although heavier drinkers may experience a better ratio of stimulation to sedation, they are more inclined to binge drink, a deadly habit driven by intense cravings to recreate that initial alcoholic high. That’s where things get scary, and users can find themselves catapulted into the vicious cycle of alcohol addiction.
As you can start to understand, alcohol has properties of both a stimulant and a depressant. However, it’s the depressant properties that are more pronounced.
Is Alcohol a Hallucinogen?
No, alcohol is not classified as a hallucinogen. Those substances include drugs such as LSD, PCP, and peyote, and hallucinations (dissociative images and sounds) are their main characteristic.
However, certain conditions resulting from chronic alcohol abuse can trigger hallucinations as a side effect. These include alcoholic hallucinosis, Delirium Tremens, and alcohol-induced psychotic disorder. Plus, when looking at alcohol withdrawal facts, you’ll see that hallucinations can also occur when you suddenly stop drinking alcohol after prolonged use.
The Depressant Effects of Alcohol
Depressants are drugs that slow down both physical and psychological activity in its users. Common examples of these include benzodiazepines, opioids, and cannabis. The reason why alcohol is defined as a depressant is because of its long-term sedative effects.
It’s these long-term behaviors that lead professionals to classify alcohol as a depressant in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Is Alcohol a Central Nervous System Stimulant?
In essence, no.The question of whether alcohol is a CNS stimulant has to do with its sedating effect, which is a hallmark of depressant substances.
Whereas alcohol-induced stimulation is typically short-lived, alcohol-induced sedation can last much longer. And just like other depressants, alcohol decreases neural activity in the central nervous system (CNS) and retards cognitive and motor performance. Chronic use leads to increased drowsiness and depression, two key characteristics of a depressant.
As for the drowsiness, it’s this sedative property that makes alcohol such a popular nightcap.
Have a couple of beverages before bed, and you’ll be sound asleep in no time. In fact, drowsiness and alcohol are so directly correlated that these two things are almost linear when plotted on a graph, as done by Timothy Roehrs, which can be seen here.
The more you drink, the quicker you’ll fall asleep.
Just don’t expect to get a great night’s sleep. As indicated by the National Sleep Foundation, drinking alcohol before bed leads to:
- Less restorative sleep
- Interrupted circadian rhythms
- Blocked REM cycles
- Aggravated breathing problems
- Extra bathroom trips from alcohol diarrhea
Yet, 20% of Americans continue to do so.
Finally, alcohol is a depressant because… drum roll… it causes depression. Although alcohol initially causes a rush of dopamine, over time these levels fall off. After which, users report feeling less motivated, more fatigued, and a loss of interest in doing things they once enjoyed. In some cases, depressive feelings are felt for several weeks after one’s last drink.
Therefore, we can conclude that alcoholism and depression are inherently linked. But, to what degree? Does drinking alcohol lead to depression, or are depressed people more inclined to drink? This is a big topic of discussion by mental health and addiction professionals today, and opinions vary.
Internal studies performed at Stonegate Center show that high levels of depressive symptoms are characteristic of clients suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD). And, outside sources suggest that being diagnosed with AUD more than doubles your chances of experiencing major depression. In fact, major depressive disorder is the most common co-occurring mental health disorder for people with AUD, with estimates that almost 33% of people in treatment for AUD meet the diagnostic criteria for depression.
In other words, it can go both ways. In more complex terms, there’s a bi-directional causality of the relationship between alcohol and depression.
As you can see, alcohol resembles both a stimulant and a depressant. However, it’s alcohol’s long-term depressant effects that characterize it as a depressant by professionals. We hope that helps answer your question, is alcohol a stimulant!
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