Is Alcohol a Depressant?
Author: Thomas Roth
Last Updated: 1/16/2022
Alcohol is a Central Nervous System Depressant. When consumed, alcohol slows down brain function and nervous system response time. Alcohol slows down the nervous system by interacting with chemicals and neurons in the brain. One chemical that causes this is the neutral transmitter GABA. When alcohol interacts with GABA it slows down the nervous system and creates impairment. Some symptoms of alcohol's depressive effects are slurred speech, unsteady movement, and impaired judgment.
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What Does Depressant Mean?
A depressant is a drug that lowers neurotransmission levels. When a depressant interacts with the brain, it slows down stimulation and arousal. Depressants are also known as "downers" because of how they slow down the body. When using depressants side effects include impaired judgment, slowed reaction time, slurring, drowsiness, and loss of fine motor skills. Depressants are commonly used for treating conditions like anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and other mental health conditions.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Central Nervous System?
Alcohol is a central nervous system inhibitor. When the central nervous system slows down it causes side effects that include decreased reaction time, slowed motor function, slurred speech, gaps in memory, and drowsiness. Alcohol affects the central nervous system by increasing the number of neurotransmitters in the brain that slow down neuron communication. In turn, communication slows down within the entire body in the brain, which means that messages in the body are being carried out at a slower rate.
Alcohol slows down the nervous system by interacting with GABA receptors in the brain. When these receptors are stimulated by alcohol or other depressants, less GABA is produced naturally within the body. With an abundance of GABA in the brain when consuming alcohol, the body produces less naturally; this leads to alcohol abuse disorder. Abuse of depressants also leads to comas, increased mental health issues, and addiction. These are side effects that alcohol has with other depressants.
What is the Relationship Between Alcohol and Depression?
When consumed frequently and in large quantities, alcohol worsens symptoms of depression. Frequent alcohol abuse also makes depressive episodes worse and harder to recover from. Alcohol impacts depression because it's a depressant and the more people drink the more likely they are to feel down or depressed. For these reasons, many people who have alcohol abuse disorder also suffer from co-occurring mental health issues like depression. Alcohol can also cause depression to develop in people who are otherwise not depressed because of how it slows down the brain and damages natural GABA and serotonin production. Alcoholics can also struggle with reduced dopamine levels, which also leads to depressive episodes.
How Much Alcohol is a Depressant?
Alcohol doesn't produce depressant reactions until blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches .08%. When alcohol is consumed in small amounts (less than .08% BAC) it causes stimulant-like effects. That said, alcohol becomes more dangerous as a depressant when consumed in large quantities. Blood alcohol concentration levels above .2% result in vomiting, loss of motor function, loss of consciousness. Furthermore, BAC levels that exceed .3% lead to coma and death if not treated by medical professionals.
What Kind of Alcoholic Drinks are More Depressant?
All types of alcoholic drinks are depressants because blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is what determines when alcohol produces depressive effects. Therefore, alcohol drinks that raise BAC levels faster are more depressant. Alcoholic drinks in this category include liquors like vodka, whiskey, and other spirits. The strongest alcoholic beverages like Everclear also increase alcohol's depressive effects.
What are the Depressant Effects of Alcohol?
Alcohol produces depressant effects in the brain and body that slow down motor skills and brain activity. Because alcohol slows down the communication between neurotransmitters in the brain, it causes side effects that are found in other drugs classified as depressants. Some of the most common depressant effects of alcohol include a reduction in motor function, slurred speech, vomiting, drowsiness, loss of consciousness, memory loss, loss of coordination, irregular heartbeat, and even death (if consumed in large quantities).
What are the Similarities Between Alcohol and Depressants?
Alcohol and other depressants like Xanax have many similarities. Other depressants and alcohol produce similar effects because they interact with the brain in similar ways. While alcohol interacts with different areas of the brain as some prescription depressants, all depressants cause neurotransmitters in the brain to slow down. When these neurotransmitters slow down, people temporarily feel euphoria. Moreover, alcohol consumption in large amounts has similar side effects as abusing prescription drugs like Xanax. For these reasons, people can overdose on alcohol and end up in need of medical treatment. Abusing depressants results in loss of consciousness, reduced motor functions, coma, and death.
What are the Effects of Alcohol on Anxiety?
Alcohol interacts with the brain and makes changes to the chemical balances of GABA production, serotonin, and even dopamine. Because of the way alcohol slows down communication in the brain, symptoms of anxiety are reduced when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches levels between .04% BAC and .08% BAC. While alcohol reduces the effects of anxiety when consumed, it worsens symptoms of anxiety when BAC levels return to 0%. In fact, people who don't have anxiety report feeling anxious for several hours or even up to a day after consuming large quantities of alcohol.
Symptoms of anxiety typically decrease in people who don't suffer from anxiety after a few hours or days after alcohol consumption. That said, people using alcohol as a treatment for anxiety disorders report having worse anxiety after BAC levels reach 0%. The cause of this is less balance in the brain, reduced natural serotonin production, and less natural GABA activity. For these reasons, alcohol shouldn't be used as a treatment method for anxiety. Alcohol also has negative reactions with other depressants, which also worsens anxiety.
Can Alcohol be Used as an Antidepressant?
According to studies published by Nature Communications (a peer-reviewed journal), alcohol can be used as an antidepressant. Alcohol can be used in this way because it produces the same molecular and neural changes as other depressants that reduce symptoms of depression. When people consume large quantities of alcohol it temporarily reduces depression while BAC levels are raised.
While alcohol can be used as an antidepressant, that doesn't mean it should be. Alcohol has a high risk of abuse and alcohol abuse disorder increases the risk of depression. Moreover, depression worsens when BAC levels return to 0%. When this occurs, symptoms of depression come back in people who have depression. Plus, depression is often worse in these cases because alcohol creates imbalances of GABA, dopamine, and serotonin in the brain. These chemicals in the brain produce feelings of euphoria and when they're limited people can't feel happy. Therefore, alcohol should not be used as an antidepressant. It also shouldn't be used alongside other depressants because it can impact another drug's ability to treat depression.
Does Alcohol Have a Stimulating Effect?
Yes, alcohol has a stimulant effect on the body. Alcohol produces both stimulant and depressant effects in people who consume it. When alcohol is consumed in smaller amounts (less than .08% BAC), it produces a stimulant reaction in the brain. People who consume a few alcoholic drinks report feeling euphoria, energetic, and more confident. These are all common side effects of stimulant drugs.
On the other hand, when alcohol is consumed in large quantities (BAC levels higher than .08%) its depressant effects rise. When consumed in large quantities alcohol interacts with GABA receptors and serotonin levels in the brain. Alcohol creates imbalances in these parts of the brain, which leads to slowed neurotransmitter communication. When neurons slow down in the brain, depressant effects increase. Some common depressant effects of alcohol include slowed motor function, loss of consciousness, slowed speech, and more.
Why Does Alcohol Make You Feel Good if It's a Depressant?
Consuming alcohol triggers the reward system in the brain, which is what makes people feel good when consuming alcohol. When people first begin drinking alcohol it produces stimulating effects by releasing dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical that's responsible for happiness, euphoria, and good feelings. For these reasons, alcohol makes people feel good when initially consumed.
That said, alcohol also makes people feel good as a depressant. When neurotransmitters slow down in the brain, symptoms of anxiety and depression are reduced. In these ways, alcohol has similar effects as prescription depressants that are used to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. While alcohol makes people feel euphoria initially, alcohol consumption in large quantities results in changes to GABA receptors and serotonin. Alcohol unnaturally increases serotonin and stimulates the GABA receptor, which causes less natural production of serotonin in the brain. When this occurs, people have trouble feeling euphoria when BAC levels return to 0%.