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Drinking Habits

Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

June 21, 2023
17 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 21, 2023
17 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 21, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 21, 2023
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Reframe Content Team
June 21, 2023
17 min read

We’ve all been there: the wave of euphoria hitting after our first drink, just as our favorite song comes on the dance floor — and whatever fatigue we were carrying from the week evaporates. Suddenly we become chattier, more extroverted, energized and carefree. But is alcohol actually a stimulant, or is it just lowering our inhibitions?

We’re exploring whether alcohol is a stimulant or depressant and gaining insight into how it affects our central nervous system. We also offer tips for improving our relationship with alcohol. Let’s get started!

What Is a Stimulant?

By definition, a stimulant is a substance that excites our central nervous system (CNS), increasing our energy, alertness, and attention. Because they activate our central nervous system, stimulants also tend to increase our heart rate or blood pressure. Caffeine is one of the most widely-used natural stimulants, helping us feel more awake, alert, and energetic. 

Stimulants can also come in the form of prescription medications. In fact, they were once used to treat asthma, obesity, neurological disorders, and a variety of other ailments. However, because of their potential for abuse and addiction, they’re now prescribed for only a few health conditions, such as narcolepsy and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Other stimulants include drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. 

Is Alcohol a Stimulant?

So, does alcohol qualify as a stimulant? In a word, no. When we start drinking, alcohol may make us feel lively, talkative, and energized — so it’s easy to assume alcohol is a stimulant. But we’re not chemically stimulated when alcohol makes us feel this way. Alcohol isn’t stimulating our brain: it's suppressing our inhibitions.

Research shows that low to moderate amounts of alcohol reduce the functioning of our CNS — slowing our thoughts, speech, and movements. This relaxation is a byproduct of alcohol’s depressant nature: it reduces anxiety and, in so doing, produces feelings of euphoria. 

This euphoric sensation is largely caused by the flood of dopamine — that “feel good” chemical — released in our brain when we start drinking. This helps us feel cozy, friendly, and at ease, at least for a bit. As alcohol continues making its way through our bloodstream, our reaction times slow, our thinking becomes fuzzy, and our memory becomes faulty. This is why alcohol is classified as a depressant: it depresses the central nervous system, slowing down brain activity and interfering with brain cell communication.

How Alcohol Acts as a Depressant

Despite making us lively (by suppressing our inhibition), we now know alcohol is a depressant. In fact, alcohol is a psychotropic depressant: it not only slows down our CNS, but it also impacts our mood, thoughts and behavior. 

For instance, after indulging in a few more drinks, we might notice that we're not as quick to laugh at jokes, our coordination becomes a bit off, and/or we're suddenly feeling tired. That's alcohol, acting as a depressant. This is why we sometimes hear that alcohol is a “downer.”

How does alcohol act on our brain to cause these effects? 

  • The role of GABA: Alcohol enhances the effect of a neurotransmitter in our brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA slows brain activity. As we drink, we're essentially applying pressure to our mental brakes, leading to those relaxed, sluggish feelings. 
  • The role of glutamate: Alcohol also reduces the impact of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that speeds up our brain activity. When glutamate is inhibited, we experience a decrease in neural activity and slowed brain processing. This is partly why our reasoning and judgment become more impaired as we consume more alcohol.
  • The role of dynorphin: That bad mood we might find ourselves in the morning after a big night out? That’s often a result of a protein called dynorphin, which the brain releases in response to the overwhelm of dopamine. Instead of a feel-good chemical, dynorphin regulates how excited our brain becomes and how it responds to pain. This dynorphin release post-drinking is the brain’s way of balancing things out. We effectively see-saw from our dopamine high to a dynorphin low.

Interestingly, chronic alcohol consumption can actually increase the production of dynorphin, and excessive dynorphin can contribute to feelings of dysphoria and depression. Prolonged alcohol use raises dynorphin levels in the body, which can exacerbate negative emotional states, and high levels of dynorphin can lessen the effects of dopamine.

Common Side Effects of Depressants

We can also look at alcohol’s side effects as we consider its classification as a depressant. Many of alcohol’s side effects are consistent with the effects of other depressants — such as barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sedative-hypnotic drugs — all of which lead to reduced activity in our CNS.

While the effects of alcohol depend on a variety of factors (including how much and how quickly we drink, our body size, and gender), these are some of the more common side effects of alcohol use:

  • Impaired motor skills and coordination
  • Mental cloudiness and confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Cognitive and memory impairment
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Slowed or depressed breathing
  • Nausea, vomiting, and dizziness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Emotional instability or mood swings

Drinking too much can also lead to alcohol poisoning, respiratory failure, coma, or even death. In these cases, we may experience mental confusion, vomiting, low body temperature, bluish skin, and irregular breathing as serious, emergent warning signs.

The Connection Between Alcohol and Depression

Since alcohol’s a depressant, it might not be surprising to learn that there’s also a connection between alcohol and depression. In fact, regularly misusing alcohol can further disrupt the brain’s chemical equilibrium, altering mood, behavior, and emotions in the long term. 

Alcohol can even reduce our level of serotonin, the chemical that regulates our mood, resulting in increased feelings of depression and anxiety. These unfavorable emotional states are exacerbated by the surge in dynorphin, which can lead to detrimental behaviors like drinking more alcohol to treat despair. This can create a vicious, destructive cycle that’s difficult to break.

Interestingly, the relationship between alcohol and depression also works in reverse: depression can lead to alcohol misuse. This occurs when people begin using alcohol to cope with or relieve intense emotional pain. As a CNS depressant, alcohol can provide temporary relief. However, it ultimately magnifies the symptoms of depression and even paves the way to dependence or misuse. One study noted that adults suffering from depression were far more likely to binge drink than those who exhibited no signs of depression. 

But it’s not just our mental health that takes a toll from excessive alcohol consumption. Over time, alcohol can cause a number of physical health problems, including liver disease, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cognitive disorders. Research has also shown that drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer

5 tips for improving our relationship with alcohol

Improving Our Relationship With Alcohol

Given that alcohol is a depressant — slowing down brain activity and affecting our thoughts, mood, and behavior — we might want to consider cutting back on our alcohol consumption or eliminating it entirely. We know: this can seem daunting. But it’s possible! And the physical, mental, and emotional health benefits are totally worth it. 

Thankfully, there are science-backed ways to manage and improve our relationship with alcohol. Here are 5 effective tips to get started:

  1. Understand alcohol’s impact: When it comes to changing our relationship with alcohol, we first need to understand how it’s affecting us. Spend some time thinking about how alcohol is affecting you — from your mood and health to your work and relationships with others. Do you tend to feel down in the dumps after a night of drinking? Is drinking interfering with your productivity? Has it caused any rifts in your personal relationships? Asking ourselves these tough questions can help motivate us to make a change.
  2. Start journaling: Journaling is much more than just writing in a diary. It’s a process that allows us to foster self-awareness and explore our deepest thoughts and emotions. This can be particularly helpful for helping us understand why we’re drinking in the first place, or what triggers us to turn to alcohol. Knowledge is power! By better understanding ourselves, we can start to develop healthier habits. Plus, research shows that journaling can lead to significant improvements in mood, stress levels, and cognitive functioning. 
  3. Practice mindful drinking: Mindful drinking can be particularly helpful for cutting back on our alcohol consumption. It involves becoming more conscious and present during the act of drinking and making more intentional choices. Some key aspects of mindful drinking include setting drink limits before going out, understanding the percentage of alcohol in each beverage we’re consuming, and alternating alcohol drinks with water throughout the night. 
  4. Engage in new hobbies: Part of the problem with drinking is that it can become habitual, simply part of our routine. We should try shaking things up by engaging in new hobbies or interests. Think about something you’ve always wanted to do but have never tried. For instance, maybe you’ve wanted to take a painting class, learn how to play the guitar, or try a new sport. It’s never too late! By breaking out of your routine and trying something new, you’re spending your time in a healthier way — plus you’re building self-confidence in the process. It’s a win-win! 
  5. Build a support system: Making changes can be difficult, particularly when it comes to changing our relationship with alcohol. Having a support system in place can make all the difference by encouraging us to stay accountable and offering motivation. This might include friends, family members, support groups, or a therapist. Research has found that people who receive social support from family and friends are more likely to quit drinking than those who don’t receive support. 

The Bottom Line

Alcohol is a depressant that reduces the functioning of our central nervous system and slows brain activity. While it might cause an initial “high,” it slows our reaction time, impairs our judgment, and alters our mood as it makes its way through our system. Even small amounts of alcohol have depressive effects. Over time, excessive consumption of alcohol can contribute to feelings of depression and lead to alcohol misuse. We can protect ourselves from alcohol’s depressive effects by limiting our consumption of alcohol and engaging in healthier lifestyle habits. 

If you’re looking to cut back on your alcohol consumption but not sure where to start, Reframe can help. We’ve helped millions of people not only change their relationship with alcohol, but develop healthier lifestyle habits that enhance their well-being. 

Summary FAQs

1. Is alcohol a stimulant?

By definition, a stimulant is something that activates our central nervous system (CNS). Alcohol is not a stimulant because it depresses our CNS and slows down brain activity. The “high” we often experience is caused by a flood of dopamine in our brain, which is very short-lived. 

2. How does alcohol act as a depressant?

Alcohol is specifically known as a “psychotropic depressant”, meaning that it not only slows down our CNS, but also impacts our mood, thoughts and behavior. It does this by disrupting the delicate balance of important chemicals in our brain.

3. What are the side effects of alcohol and other depressants? 

Most depressants reduce the functioning of the CNS, causing impaired motor skills and coordination, slurred speech, mental confusion, lowered blood pressure, slow breathing, nausea and vomiting. 

4. Is there a connection between alcohol and depression?

Yes, regularly misusing alcohol can disrupt the chemical equilibrium in our brain and lead to feelings of depression. On the other hand, depression can also lead to alcohol misuse in an attempt to cope with or relieve intense emotional pain.

5. How can you improve your relationship with alcohol?

We can work on improving our relationship with alcohol by identifying what is causing us to drink, journaling our emotions, practicing mindful drinking, engaging in new hobbies, and building a support system.

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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