Is Alcohol a Depressant?
Drinking profoundly alters an individual’s mood, behavior, and neuropsychological functioning. For many people, alcohol consumption is a means of relaxation; however, the effects of alcohol and hangovers can actually induce anxiety and increase stress. Alcohol is classified as a Central Nervous System depressant, meaning that it slows down brain functioning and neural activity. Alcohol does this by enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA.
Alcohol can depress the central nervous system so much that it results in impairment such as slurred speech, unsteady movement, disturbed perceptions, and an inability to react quickly. Mentally, alcohol reduces an individual’s ability to think rationally, lessens inhibitions, and distorts judgment. If an individual consumes too much alcohol too rapidly, they can depress the central nervous system to a point of respiratory failure, coma, or death.
Alcohol encompasses both stimulating and sedative effects. Although clinically categorized as a depressant, the amount of alcohol consumed and a person’s individual reaction determines the type of effect he or she will experience. Most people drink for the initial stimulant effect, to “loosen up” and reduce social inhibitions. However, if a person consumes more than the body can handle or has a higher tolerance, he or she will then begin to experience alcohol’s sedating effects such as cognitive impairment. Some individuals actually drink primarily for alcohol’s sedative effects, such as anxiety reduction. Some studies suggest that most people initially drink alcohol to experience stimulation and associated positive effects, but after becoming dependent or developing an addiction, they switch to drink primarily to experience the anxiety associated with the sedative effects. Drinking slowly is more likely to lead to a desire for more sedative effects, while drinking rapidly tends to increase stimulation effects.
Some researchers believe that people who don’t respond to alcohol’s sedative effects as strongly as others are at a heightened risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. They drink more to compensate for the fact that they don’t immediately feel anything, increasing their chances of experiencing the negative side effects. Alcohol overdose, or alcohol poisoning, can cause even more severe depressant effects, including: inability to feel pain, toxicity, unconsciousness, slow and irregular breathing, cold, clammy, and blue skin, and possibly even death. These reactions additionally depend on how much an individual consumes and how quickly.
How Depressants Effect the Mind and Body
Alcohol impacts the brain in a variety of ways. The substance binds to receptors for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a neurotransmitter responsible for producing feelings of calmness and sedation, as well as the depression of the central nervous system that causes suppression of breathing and heart rate. Alcohol also inhibits glutamate, resulting in memory loss and other impaired brain functionality. In addition to effecting GABA and glutamine, alcohol releases dopamine – the neurotransmitter chemical responsible for pleasure and reward. This causes people to drink even more in an attempt to increase those feel good feelings that dopamine produces.
However, as more alcohol is consumed, more depressant effects will develop. As an individual continues drinking and more alcohol enters the system, it impairs judgement, vision, and alertness; dulls the senses; affects concentration; and slows down reaction time.
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Side Effects of Alcohol and Other Depressants
In addition to alcohol, there are many other depressant drugs. Sometimes referred to as “downers,” these are medications that are regularly prescribed to reduce symptoms of anxiety, panic, and sleep disorders due to their tranquilizing effects. The most common depressants include:
Abusing depressant medications and alcohol can result in both short-term and long-term effects, some of which can be irreversible. While many people use depressants because of the relaxing effects that these substances temporarily create, the severity of the negative effects far outweigh any positive associations. Side effects of depressant abuse include:
- Low blood pressure
- Slowed heart rate
- Slurred speech
- Impaired motor skills
- Slowed breathing
- Low blood pressure
There are a number of non-physical effects of depressant abuse as well. Many depressant abusers experience problems with finances, employment, friends, and family. Additionally, the effects that alcohol induces can easily put others at risk and in danger, such as driving under the influence, participating in unprotected sex, and engaging in physical altercations.
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