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Is Alcohol a Stimulant?

Almost everyone knows how significantly alcohol consumption can influence the way you think, feel, and act. It decreases your inhibitions, impairs your judgment, and affects your coordination. Since alcohol may feel energizing and exciting at first, many people believe that alcohol is a stimulant. However, the truth is alcohol contains properties of both stimulants and depressants. And, in the end, alcohol is a depressant due to the way it slows the body down in moderate to high doses.

Understanding The Difference Between Stimulants and Depressants

Two common classifications of drugs are stimulants and depressants. Both affect the nervous system and brain in opposite ways. While stimulants excite the nervous system and produce excess energy, depressants slow down the nervous system and can be relaxing or sedating.

As opposite types of drugs, they are used for opposite purposes. Stimulants like meth and cocaine are abused to make people alert and energized. Prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to patients with ADHD to promote better focus. On the other hand, depressants like heroin and fentanyl are used to reduce pain and cause sedation. Prescription depressants, like oxycodone, Xanax, or Vicodin are used to treat pain, anxiety, insomnia, and other conditions.

Very few compounds have characteristics of both stimulants and depressants. Two of the most common are alcohol and nicotine. Although nicotine is classified as a stimulant, it does produce some relaxing effects.[1] And, even though alcohol is classified as a depressant, it acts as a stimulant in low doses.

Side Effects of Stimulants

Stimulant drugs work by exciting the central nervous system. Side effects of stimulants vary depending on the exact drug consumed, but may include:[2]

Side Effects of Stimulants

  • Increased energy
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Talkativeness
  • Sweating
  • Nervousness
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Euphoria
  • Reduced appetite

Side Effects of Depressants

Depressant drugs may produce varying side effects depending on which type of substance was taken. Common side effects of depressants include:[3]

Side Effects of Depressants

  • Relaxation
  • Decreased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Sedation
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Calmness
  • Euphoria
  • Drowsiness
  • Pain relief
  • Memory problems
  • Loss of consciousness

Since depressant and stimulant drugs produce opposite effects, it is very dangerous to mix two of the substances with each other.

Stimulant Effects Produced by Alcohol

Many people falsely believe that alcohol is a stimulant because it produces stimulating effects in the beginning. When you first drink alcohol, it signals for your brain to release dopamine, a feel-good chemical that can make you feel elated, energized, and stimulated. This may also increase your heart rate, causing redness in your face or skin.

As your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) approaches a level of 0.05, stimulant effects occur. However, after your BAC exceeds 0.08, more depressant effects may set in. This is why people feel energized after their first or second drink, but drowsy and inhibited as they continue to drink more.

Depressant Effects Produced by Alcohol

As the initial stimulant effects begin to wear off and BAC increases, the central nervous system begins to slow down. Your blood pressure, heart rate, and mental clarity will drop. If you have drunk large amounts of alcohol, have low tolerance, or are drinking on an empty stomach, you may feel sleepy, sedated, confused, or disoriented.

At extremely high doses, alcohol actually suppresses dopamine production. This can lead to sadness, depression, and even respiratory suppression. After your BAC exceeds 0.2, the depressant effects may be so strong that you go into a coma, experience alcohol poisoning, or lose consciousness.

Why is Alcohol Considered a Depressant?

Depressant drugs work by enhancing the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain to produce feelings of relaxation and sedation. Although alcohol affects dopamine, causing an initial jolt of energy, it also affects the reuptake of GABA. Ultimately, alcohol produces similar effects as other depressants – impaired decision making, reduced coordination, mental fog – and, therefore, is considered a depressant — not a stimulant.[4]

It’s important to remember that no two individuals are the same, so everyone responds differently to alcohol. Some people experience more stimulating and energizing effects than others. On the other hand, some people may not tolerate alcohol well at all, experiencing depressant effects after the first drink.

In the end, even though alcohol has some stimulant effects at low doses, it is primarily classified as a depressant substance. After switching from a stimulant at low doses to a depressant at high doses, alcohol slows down all central nervous system functions, causing a lack of coordination, slowed heart rate, and mental confusion.

Find Help for Alcohol Abuse Today

Alcohol, even though legal, is a highly addictive and dangerous substance. Due to the alcohol content in many drinks, it is easy to consume a week’s worth of alcohol in just one sitting. If you are someone who abuses alcohol and struggles to function without it, you may be struggling with alcoholism. Here at Mandala Healing Center, we can help you tackle your alcohol problem at the root. Call us today to get started with an alcohol rehab in your area.