Is Alcohol a Depressant? – Alcohol is classified as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, but the answer is slightly more complicated than that. Alcohol consumption, depending on the level consumed and an individual’s reaction, can result in both sedative and stimulatory effects.
For example, increased heart rate and aggression are two effects that are more commonly associated with a stimulant, but cognitive and motor skill impairments are more often characteristics of a depressant.
Some experts believe that persons who are at an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder do not respond as intensely to alcohol’s sedating effects as others do. In fact, alcoholism is more strongly linked to an increased stimulatory reaction to alcohol.
Alcohol affects the brain in a variety of ways. For one, it attaches to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, a brain chemical responsible for inducing feelings of relaxation, calmness, and sedation, as well as the suppression of breathing and heart rate. It also inhibits glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that stimulates the central nervous system (CNS).
In addition to its actions on GABA and glutamate, alcohol also releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. As dopamine increases, euphoric feelings begin to emerge, and those affected may continue to consume alcohol in an effort to “chase” the dopamine high. As more alcohol is ingested, however, more depressant effects will eventually develop.
Moreover, alcohol does not excite the central nervous system. Rather, it is the excessive release of dopamine which induces a feeling of pleasure and reward that may sometimes be suggestive of extra energy. But this effect is misleading—as a person continues to drink, the CNS continues to be increasingly depressed despite the increased presence of dopamine.
Combining Alcohol With Drugs (Polysubstance Abuse)
Alcohol, like benzodiazepines, sedatives, and muscle relaxers, is a CNS depressant. All these substances repress activity in the brain and body. When alcohol is used in combination with another depressant, the risk of life-threatening CNS depression dramatically increases. Moreover, when CNS activity begins to slow to a crawl, the risk of coma and death begets a very real and present danger.
Conversely, stimulants boost activity in the CNS and include substances such as amphetamines, caffeine, and cocaine. Some people use stimulants as they are drinking to reduce alcohol’s depressant effect and counteract the adverse effects of stimulants, including anxiety, nervousness, and agitation.
Using alcohol with stimulants, however, is potentially even more dangerous. Indeed, people may continue to consume alcohol while still feeling energic and elated from stimulant use under the erroneous belief that he or she is not at risk for other adverse consequences.
However, combining alcohol with short-acting stimulants, such as cocaine, is particularly dangerous, because alcohol’s depressant effect can continue long after the effects of the stimulant have subsided. In fact, mixing alcohol and cocaine increases the risk of sudden death by 20 times over the use of either substance alone.
Using alcohol in conjunction with other stimulants, such as prescription amphetamines, increases the risk of seizures and heart-related complications such as irregular heartbeat and heart attack. Also, continuing the consumption of alcohol while intoxicated by stimulants increases the risk of alcohol poisoning—a condition that can prove life-threatening for those who reach a blood alcohol concentration of .4 or higher.
Finally, alcohol and other psychoactive drugs can produce serious psychological effects, such as major depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, irritability, aggression, delusions, and hallucinations.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Persons struggling with drug or alcohol addiction are encouraged to enroll in one of our treatment programs and participate in either partial-hospitalization program (PHP) or intensive outpatient therapy. PHP offers many of the same therapeutic services as residential treatment while allowing patients more flexibility to attend to personal obligations such as family, work or school.
These programs can be equally effective as residential programs, however. They offer comparable treatments, including individual psychotherapy, individual and group counseling, group support, and aftercare planning services. Conversely, outpatients can enjoy even more scheduling flexibility while they engage in therapy sessions several times per week and fully adjust to life outside of treatment without the use of drugs or alcohol.
Why Harmony Recovery Center?
Alcohol addiction is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that requires long-term treatment and support. While there is no cure for alcoholism, it can be effectively treated. Those who seek treatment can reclaim their lives and begin to enjoy long-term sobriety and well-being.
Harmony Recovery Center offers a secure, structured environment and professional addiction specialists who are trained to identify and address the needs of each person through an in-depth, custom approach to abuse and addiction treatment.
If you or someone you love is abusing alcohol or other substances, you should seek treatment as soon as possible. Call us now to learn about our treatment options. Discover how we help people free themselves from the chains of addiction indefinitely!