Alcohol is a depressant. It’s also a stimulant. Confused? It’s not just the booze talking.
So is alcohol a depressant?
Yes. And here’s what that means.
Depressant drugs slow down your brain activity. People take them as a sleep aid, and use them to ease muscle spasms and prevent seizures.
- benzodiazepines like Valium
- sedative-hypnotic drugs like Ambien
Like depressants, alcohol use can impair motor skills and cognitive functioning. Some people also consume it to (temporarily) reduce anxiety.
Alcohol is a unique drug that perks you up when you start drinking, and brings you down later. Ever had a night of drinking that started out laughing and joking with friends and ends with you alone in a corner muttering into your glass?
Then you already know about the rollercoaster effect alcohol can have on your brain. We looked at how depressants work and the way alcohol relates to that drug (because it’s hella weird).
Depressant drugs include sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics.
They used to go by the name central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which pretty neatly describes what they do. They don’t make you “depressed” — they calm down activity in your CNS.
For this reason, doctors often prescribe sedatives to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders, while hypnotics can induce sleep. Tranquilizers are more often used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, and acute stress, or relieve muscle spasms.
How do depressants interact with the brain?
All depressants can slow brain activity. You don’t take these drugs to be better at sports or do better on tests. They’re sleepy drugs and relaxy drugs.
(Quaaludes are depressants too, which explains that scene in “Wolf of Wall Street.”)
Most depressants increase levels of the chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which reduces activity in the brain and CNS.
Scientists have a decent handle on why alcohol acts as a stimulant: when you begin drinking and your blood alcohol level rises, drinking causes a release of the “happy chemical” dopamine in the brain.
It’s a little less clear why a sometimes crushing low replaces that initial high as your blood alcohol level decreases.
One 2020 study found that a compound in hops (the very same hops that makes beer beery) might interact with GABA receptors in the brain — yep, that GABA.
The authors suggest that that this potentially increases the possibility that all alcohol works in a similar way. But the jury’s still out, and research is still pretty unclear on how it works.
In addition to making you calm and sleepy, depressants can lead to:
Sound like any adult beverages you know?
Despite their name, depressant drugs don’t necessarily make you depressed. But some can trigger depression as a side effect.
Benzodiazepines, for example, can alter mood and trigger depression, especially if you take them for an extended period of time. The risk of depression is greater for older people and those with a history of depression.
Drinking booze is about the worst thing you can do to solve any problem, but is particularly bad for depression. “Alcohol use and depression are commonly and undeniably intertwined,” says Dr. Paul R. Linde, a psychiatric consultant with Ria Health, an online addiction treatment program.
“Many people drink alcohol to self-medicate underlying depression. Since alcohol is a mood depressant, this only deepens that depression. Others didn’t suffer from depression until they began to drink heavily.”
Alcohol is a fickle mistress. When you start drinking, booze acts like a stimulant, making you excited and energetic. But when the high starts to wear off the buzz can quickly give way to fatigue, confusion and depression — more like the effects of a depressant drug.
“It’s later in the evening that people usually get that drunken negative vibe,” says Dr. John Mendelson, chief medical officer at Ria Health. “Some people may not get the positive rush at all — they just go right into the negative.”
“While alcohol is considered a depressant, it’s unique in the sense that it gives the consumer a momentary boost of stimulation when consumption first occurs,” says Sean Duane, an addiction treatment expert at Ambrosia Treatment Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“This is that euphoric sense that’s often associated with drug and alcohol use, however, after that temporary jolt of enjoyment, most of us feel some sort of slow slide into regret or depressing tendencies.”
Both alcohol and antidepressants can make you tired, less alert, and uncoordinated. So unless you really want to be stumbling around before you keel over into bed, mixing alcohol and antidepressants is a bad idea.
Potentially fatal liver problems and spikes in blood pressure are other really good reasons not to mix these drugs.
What to do if you can’t put down the booze
The depressant effect of alcohol can get worse if you drink to excess.
There’s no shame in it. You have loads of options for help and treatment. Whether you’re struggling with a drinking problem yourself, or worried about a friend, here’s a list of useful resources to help you ditch the booze:
- Alcoholics Anonymous: This is an international fellowship for those who live with alcohol abuse disorder. Find an AA meeting near you.
- NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator: This is a tool to help you find treatment options in your area.
- Al-Anon: This resource can guide you in how to help a friend with a drinking problem.
- SAMHSA: SAMSHA provides a wide range of resources on addiction treatment and prevention.
Alcohol can act as both a stimulant and depressant. Typically, drinking starts out as a mood lifter but can crush your mood as the evening progresses.
Like depressant drugs, alcohol seems to affect chemicals that inhibit brain activity.