Is Alcohol a Depressant?

Man holding glass of whisky

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Alcohol can produce stimulating effects, but it is a depressant. Alcohol affects your central nervous system (CNS), impacting the way your brain communicates with the nerves in your body. 

Depressants affect the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which slows down your brain activity. This can lead to side effects such as relaxation, drowsiness, slurred speech, decreased inhibition, and problems with coordination.

In addition, drinking alcohol quickly and in large amounts can lead to more severe symptoms, such as memory loss, coma, even death. 

How Depressants Affect the Mind and Body

It’s a common misconception that alcohol is a stimulant because it produces many stimulating effects like increased heart rate, alertness, and aggression. 

For some, alcohol can increase confidence and self-esteem. It can also decrease feelings of anxiety and make some people chatty or sociable, even energized. It can also feel rewarding to drink, as alcohol releases dopamine in the brain, encouraging you to keep drinking. These “feel good” effects, however, are short-lived.  

Depressants are commonly known as “downers,” as they typically reduce stimulation. In addition to alcohol (aka ethanol), there are barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sedative-hypnotic drugs, among other depressants. Some of the most common depressants include: 

These drugs are often used to treat anxiety, minimize pain, relieve muscle spasms, sleep disorders, and address other mental health issues.

Some are safer than others, but all produce lower levels of awareness in the brain and cause the activity in the CNS to slow down. 

As one of the most widely used and socially accepted drugs in the world, alcohol is easily abused. A common psychoactive drug, alcohol, alters your consciousness, thoughts, and mood. It can be tempting to drink for the “mood-boosting” side effects, but this can lead to alcohol abuse or dependence on alcohol. 

Common Side Effects 

The effects of alcohol depend largely on how much and how quickly you drink, along with varying factors such as your personal history, genetics, body size, gender, tolerance, and other key factors.

Common side effects of alcohol use include:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Loss of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache 
  • Reduced reaction time
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness 
  • Impaired mental functioning
  • Slow breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of memory

Drinking too much can lead to alcohol poisoning, respiratory failure, coma, or death. If you’ve experienced an overdose, you may experience mental confusion, vomiting, unconsciousness, slow heart rate, low body temperature, bluish skin, and irregular breathing, among other symptoms.

Some long-term effects of alcohol misuse include:

  • Injuries
  • Liver disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Chronic health conditions
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Prolonged alcohol consumption is also closely linked to cancer and suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Complications

Studies have found that heavy drinkers when compared to light or non-drinkers, may be more likely to experience greater stimulant and rewarding responses from alcohol than sedative effects. This may put them at a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD)

Drinking can be harmful to anyone, regardless of their susceptibility to alcohol misuse or dependence. Therefore, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding excessive drinking, whenever possible, including binge drinking, heavy drinking, or drinking if you’re pregnant or younger than 21 years old.

Alcohol is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths every year. This is equivalent to 261 deaths per day.

While it may feel good to drink, alcohol changes the chemicals in your brain, impacting your thoughts and behaviors.

As your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises, so do the risks. Abusing alcohol can not only harm your health and mental health, but it can also hurt those around you, especially if you engage in risky behaviors while under the influence like driving, having unprotected sex, or fighting. 

Treatment

No matter how severe your alcohol misuse, recovery is possible. When you speak with a mental health professional, you can determine what treatment plan works best for you and your situation. Treatment options may include medication or therapy.

Medication

If you’re undergoing alcohol withdrawal symptoms or want to reduce alcohol cravings, you may be prescribed medication. The FDA-approved options include naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram.

Naltrexone may also be used to reduce drinking without quitting cold turkey. This approach, known as the Sinclair Method, aims to reduce drinking by having people take naltrexone when consuming alcohol. Because the medication blocks the rewards signals, people may find drinking less rewarding and begin to consume less over time.

Therapy 

There are different types available, including trauma-specific therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), as well as individual, family, or group therapy. Options for support groups include Alcoholics Anonymous, Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART), or Women for Sobriety (WFS), among others.

What works for you might not work for someone else, so know there are alternative programs available.

A Word From Verywell

Alcohol affects everyone a little differently. Even if you’re drinking the same alcoholic beverage at the same rate as someone else, your reactions will differ. It’s important to remember that alcohol is a depressant, and you can overdose if you drink too much. Excessive drinking can also harm your finances, relationships, and physical and mental health, so it’s important to seek professional care if it becomes a problem. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol misuse, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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