In many parts of the world, alcohol is culturally accepted. In moderation, alcohol may not seem harmless, but using it in excess can lead to severe physical and mental health problems.
Alcohol is an addictive substance that can damage your health, work, and social life. A recent study found that over 14.5 million people in the United States have an alcohol use disorder. Although many people drink alcohol, they often overlook what it does to the body and brain.
Answering the question "is alcohol a stimulant or depressant?" may seem simple. However, many people struggle to answer it. Establishing the effects of stimulants and depressants can help us understand the severe impacts alcohol has on the body, which can help you make better-informed decisions.
Substances and the Central Nervous System
There is a common belief that stimulants increase your mood and energy levels, while depressants have the opposite effect and leave you feeling depressed and lethargic. This is a very simplified idea, and it does not realistically reflect the whole picture. Stimulants and depressants have a broad range of impacts on the body, specifically the central nervous system.
The central nervous system consists of your brain and spinal cord. It is responsible for controlling your mind and most of your bodily functions, including awareness, movement, feelings, cognition, speech, and memory. The spinal cord connects to a section of the brain called the brainstem, which runs through the spinal canal.
The central nervous system communicates with nerves throughout the body - known as the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system collects information through your senses and sends anything it uncovers to the central nervous system, which then produces a reaction.
For example, if you touch something sharp, the receptors in the skin of your hands - part of the peripheral nervous system - will detect any pain and send a message to the central nervous system. The central nervous system uses this information to send a signal to the peripheral nervous system, which moves the fingers away from the sharp object.
These two systems communicate to generate a number of responses within your body and control activity and behavior. Stimulant and depressant substances influence all of these functions.
How Do Stimulants Work?
Stimulants include a vast range of substances, such as caffeine in your morning coffee, prescription medications such as amphetamines in Adderall and Ritalin, and illegal drugs like cocaine.
These substances get their name from the effect they have - they speed up the processes of the central nervous system. They work by increasing the production of the natural brain chemical dopamine, which improves mood, and motivation to work, eat, move, and reproduce.
Dopamine also has physical effects, including increasing blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate. Having optimum dopamine levels maintains your health and well-being. However, excess levels can induce adverse effects such as violence, aggression, paranoia, impulsiveness, and risky behavior.
Stimulants generally induce an initial positive feeling, but in excessive quantities, they can generate disproportionate levels of dopamine, which can, in turn, result in sleeping difficulties, anxiety, aggression, and paranoia. If stimulants are taken over a prolonged period, they produce similar effects.
Additionally, some stimulants can interact with existing dopamine in the brain, resulting in an increased chance of addiction. So although they may be used initially for their positive effects, they can have long-term negative impacts on the body, mind, and central nervous system.
How Do Depressants Work?
The name depressants suggest that depressants will make you feel depressed if you take them. But this is not necessarily the case. Instead, the name refers to the way the substance affects the central nervous system.
Depressants slow down the functioning of the central nervous system by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which reduces communication between the brain and the body, inducing a relaxing effect.
Depressants have many physical effects, such as affecting your ability to concentrate, coordinate bodily movements, and your response time. They also decrease your heart rate and lower your blood pressure.
Depressant drugs include alcohol, which is very commonly used, legal, and readily available, as well as cannabis, opiates, tranquilizers, and sedatives such as ketamine. All of these depressants have the ability to reduce central nervous system activity; however, the extent to which they do ranges depending on the substance.
Sometimes, depressants are prescribed in medical scenarios to reduce the severity of conditions such as anxiety and sleep disorders. However, they can become very addictive and produce extremely dangerous, sometimes fatal, effects on the body.
Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?
So, is alcohol a stimulant or depressant? We can determine if a substance is a stimulant or a depressant by examining its effects on the central nervous system. Essentially, the dominant effects of a substance specify whether it is a stimulant or a depressant.
When you first consume alcohol, it has stimulating effects. You experience an increase in dopamine levels resulting in increased heart rate, boosted confidence, alertness, and lowered inhibitions. These lowered inhibitions can impair your judgment in activities such as driving, using machines, or taking part in unprotected sex.
Alcohol's stimulant effects don't last long, and as you continue drinking alcohol, you will begin to experience depressant effects. These occur because heavy drinking can suppress dopamine production and increase the presence of GABA, which reduces brain functioning.
The physical effects of this include decreased blood pressure and heart rate. Meanwhile, the behavioral effects include slurred speech, cognitive impairment, and disorientation.
The effects of alcohol can widely vary depending on many factors such as your current situation. Weight, sex, tolerance, and hydration can also impact the way alcohol affects the body.
If you drink large quantities of alcohol, you may experience alcohol poisoning. Extreme alcohol consumption inhibits the nerves that control involuntary breathing and your gag reflex. This can result in choking if you begin vomiting. Due to the stomach irritation caused by alcohol, you may no longer be able to prevent yourself from choking on your vomit.
Related article: Alcohol and sleep
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include confusion, irregular breathing, vomiting, loss of color in the face, low body temperature, unconsciousness, and respiratory failure.
The Bottom Line
Although some substances can have a combination of effects, we classify them depending on which takes the most significant effect. In the case of alcohol, the depressant effects are most significant. Therefore, we can conclude that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant.
Alcohol Abuse Treatment: Restore Your Physical and Mental Health
Alcohol addiction is a severely complex disease. Overcoming alcohol abuse is a significant challenge for everyone who goes through it. But there is help available, and you too can find a path to recovery.
At Cornerstone alcohol rehab, Orange County, we use a variety of evidence-based treatment methods which work to help you break free from the grips of addiction and live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.
We are passionate about ensuring the needs of our clients are met. We combine top-quality medical care with compassion and understanding, and all of our treatment programs can be personalized to your specific needs.
We don't simply treat the problem of addiction; we also look at the underlying root causes that could be fuelling your alcohol addiction. Following treatment at our center, we are confident that you will have the tools and courage to make long-term and meaningful changes for the sober life you deserve.
Don't hesitate to start your journey - call us today.