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Is Alcohol a Depressant? How Alcohol Affects the Body and Brain

Graphic showing the effects of alcohol

In the United States, over 85 percent of adults have consumed alcohol at some time. Many people drink alcohol when they feel depressed or nervous. Alcohol appears to make individuals more energetic for the time being, but many people are surprised to learn that alcohol is a depressant.

The misconception emerges from the belief that depressants cause emotional depression. The similarity of the word “depressant” to “depression” may be to blame. However, when we talk about different types of depressants, it is about how the substances affect the body. 

This article will discuss alcohol’s effect on the body and mind. 

So, What is a Depressant?

While there is a common misconception depressants do not mean that they make you emotionally depressed. Instead, depressants are a class of drugs that inhibit or depress the central nervous system (CNS), indicating that a depressant hinders and slows the brain and nervous system activity. 

When CNS depressants are used, they reduce brain activity and consciousness by inhibiting transmissions from nerve receptors to the brain. This slowing and blocking alter a person’s judgments, movements, emotions, and senses. When an individual takes a depressant, they become more prone to a wide range of health risks, accidental injury, and even death.

Is Alcohol a Depressant?

Drinking too much alcohol impacts an individual’s mood, behavior, and cognitive functioning. Many people use alcohol to relax; however, the alcohol’s effects and hangovers can promote anxiety and increase stress. 

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which lowers neural activity and brain functions. Alcohol does this by increasing the actions of the neurotransmitter GABA.

Alcohol affects not just the body but also the mind. Alcohol impairs your ability to think rationally and affects your judgment. Too much alcohol consumption in a short period of time might be harmful to your health. It causes central nervous system depression, resulting in respiratory failure, coma, or even death.

How Alcohol Affects the Body and Brain?

Alcohol’s classification was not always precise due to its numerous effects on the body and brain. Heavy drinking depresses the central nervous system and amplifies the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter known as the “slowdown chemical.” GABA transmits messages to the brain that cause drowsiness, relaxation, and mood enhancements. 

These are similar to the effects of other depressants, such as benzodiazepines. According to studies, alcohol’s effects are determined by how much someone drinks and whether their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) increases or decreases. 

Alcohol functions as a stimulant in the early stages of drinking. Alcohol acts as a sedative in the body when it is processed. This is because alcohol has various effects as it goes through the body. When alcohol reaches the stomach, around 20 percent of it is absorbed into the bloodstream, with the rest moving to the small intestine. Within the small intestine, 80 percent of the alcohol is promptly absorbed into the blood, where it travels to the veins and is distributed to all parts of the body, including the brain.

When alcohol reaches the brain, it causes the release of “feel-good” neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, as well as an increase in norepinephrine levels, which generate excitement and arousal. A lower BAC causes a decrease in energy and an increase in exhaustion, relaxation, depression, and confusion. 

These chemical changes have physical side effects that inhibit reflexes, speech, and the ability to understand and process information. Drinking too much in one sitting can be risky, resulting in low body temperature, difficulty breathing, or alcohol poisoning.

Although alcohol has a wide range of effects on the body and brain, it primarily affects the GABA receptors in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum. These areas of the brain respond to low doses of alcohol and show a decrease in activity after consuming alcohol. Lower activity in these brain parts may result in memory loss, decreased motor activity, and poor judgment, all of which are common depressant side effects.

What Are the Effects of Alcohol?

While alcohol can have depressant effects, the type of effect you experience is dependent on the amount consumed. A small amount of alcohol, such as a glass or two of wine or beer, has a stimulant effect. It makes you “loosen up,” lowering your inhibitions.

When alcohol stimulates your nervous system, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased aggression
  • Blackouts and memory loss
  • Slower reaction time
  • Low body temperature
  • Inability to reason

When your blood alcohol content (BAC) exceeds 0.05mg per liter, you will experience the stimulant effects of alcohol. If your BAC rises to 0.08mg per liter, you will experience the depressant effects. However, keep in mind that the harmful effects of alcohol differ from person to person. Several factors impact alcohol’s effects on the body, including:

  • Weight
  • Sex
  • Body Chemistry
  • Amount of alcohol consumed
  • Alcohol tolerance

Taking these factors into account, some people experience more depressant effects than others. Researchers feel you are at a higher risk of substance abuse if drinking stimulates rather than sedates you. On that basis, it is crucial to be well aware of the symptoms of alcoholism.

Alcohol is known more for its depressive effects. A person going through an alcohol overdose will have a sedative impact that will cause unconsciousness, coma, and death. Aside from these effects, drinking can raise stress and anxiety. 

The more you drink, the more likely you will experience an emotional response such as rage or depression. Individual or group therapy, for example, might assist in working through problems rather than avoiding them.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Alcohol dependence is a severe and even fatal condition that needs long-term treatment and support. Although there is no cure for alcohol use disorder (AUD), it can be adequately treated. Those who seek assistance and begin treatment can regain control of their life and eventually achieve long-term sobriety and well-being.

Detox

Alcohol addiction treatment may begin in a medical detox facility, where patients get 24-hour care and may be given medications to alleviate exceedingly unpleasant and sometimes fatal alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Inpatient Alcohol Treatment

Inpatient alcohol treatment is an excellent option for anybody who wishes to concentrate only on recovery without the distractions or stress of school, work, or social responsibilities. 

It allows for complete immersion in the recovery process and may be a valuable option for persons who have tried other treatments unsuccessfully. Inpatient treatment for alcohol abuse issues can run anywhere from 30 days to six months or longer, depending on the individual’s unique needs.

Behavioral Therapies

Talk therapy with a healthcare expert, such as a psychologist or mental health counselor, can teach you how to change your behavior. The most commonly used therapies in the treatment of substance use disorders (SUDs) include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and 12-step facilitation.

Medications

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved naltrexone and acamprosate to treat alcohol use disorder. Topiramate and gabapentin can also help some people reduce cravings. Disulfiram, an older medicine, is now used only rarely. These medications appear to help reduce the obsessional background thinking associated with drinking.

Support Groups

Meetings with others who suffer from an alcohol use problem might help you stay clean. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings are generally free and available in most communities.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is drinking a form of depression?

Alcohol has a depressant effect. That means that any amount of alcohol can increase your chances of getting the blues. A lot of drinking might impair your brain and lead to depression.

When you consume too many alcoholic beverages, you are more inclined to make poor decisions or act irrationally. As a result, you may strain your finances, lose your job, or ruin a relationship with loved ones. When this happens, you’re more likely to feel down, especially if your genes are predisposed to depression.

What alcohol is not a depressant?

As you’ve probably heard, tequila is the only distilled liquor that acts as a stimulant rather than a depressant. However, many others are still skeptical.

Although you may have seen people drinking tequila become happy, loud, and enthusiastic, tequila can actually be depressant. It is intoxicating in the same way wine, beer, vodka, and other distilled spirits are. Tequilas typically contain between 38-40 percent alcohol, or 76 and 80 proof.

What is the most depressant alcohol?

A recent study examined how different types of alcohol cause distinct emotional reactions in men and women. The study polled over 30,000 people from 21 nations across the world. Each responder drank other types of wine, spirits, and beer on different occasions and documented how the various types of alcohol affected their mood and feelings.

Respondents were most likely to report feeling relaxed (52.8 percent) after drinking red wine, although almost half also reported feeling relaxed after drinking lager. However, red wine is also known to make you sluggish. Red wine was voted the most likely kind of alcohol to make people relaxed and lethargic, with 60 percent experiencing drowsiness after a few glasses.

Is it true that tequila is not considered a depressant?

Although you may have seen people drinking tequila become rowdy and highly enthusiastic, it is a depressant. This is because tequila contains ethanol, the same intoxicating chemical found in wine, beer, and other liquors. The alcohol molecule is the same in all alcoholic beverages.

You may see it implied that there is something about tequila that causes individuals to act differently than when they drink beer or wine. This is just not true; the alcohol in beer, wine, and tequila all have the same effect on the brain. However, how you consume these beverages might significantly impact how you behave. 

For example, tequila is often consumed in the form of shots taken in short succession, but wine is typically sipped slowly as a source of relaxation.

Return to a Healthy Life with Help From Indiana Center for Recovery

While the occasional drink is okay, consuming large amounts of alcohol for an extended period can be hazardous to one’s health and lead to a dangerous addiction. Alcohol addiction can be challenging to overcome on your own. 

Fortunately, a rehab facility like the Indiana Center for Recovery can help you recover in a safe and comfortable environment. Our facility offers a medical detox program, residential care, outpatient services, and specialized options for veterans.

Contact us today if you or a loved one is battling addiction or a mental health disorder. Speak with an admissions counselor by calling us at (844) 650-0064. Our counselors are available 24/7 and are happy to answer all your questions.