Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

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The amount of individuals experiencing a substance use disorder continues to grow throughout the United States. In 2020, approximately 40.3 million individuals, 12 years of age or older, were diagnosed with a substance use disorder. (1) The number of individuals meeting the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder increased to approximately 46.3 million individuals. (2) Alcohol is a substance that heavily contributes to the substance use epidemic. In 2021, approximately 29.5 million individuals were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. (3) Though alcohol use has a high prevalence rate, many individuals may not be aware whether or not alcohol is classified as a stimulant or a depressant.

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What Is a Stimulant?

A stimulant is a substance that speeds up the central nervous system. Stimulants can be prescribed by a doctor or obtained illicitly. Stimulants can be in the form of pills, powders, rocks, and intravenous injections. (4) When a stimulant is smoked, snorted, or injected, it can produce a temporary “rush”, which can lead to the development of addiction or a substance use disorder (5)

Common prescription stimulants include: (6)

  • Amphetamines (Adderall & Dexedrine)
  • Methylphenidate (Concerta & Ritalin)
  • Diet aids (Didrex, Bontril, Preludin, Fastin, Adipex, Ionomin, & Meridia)

Common illicit stimulants include: (7)

  • Methamphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Methcathinone
  • Synthetic cathinones (Bath salts)

Regular or repeated stimulant use can lead to adverse side effects.

Adverse side effects associated with stimulant use include: (8)

  • Agitation
  • Hostility
  • Panic
  • Aggression
  • Suicidal and homicidal ideation
  • Dizziness
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Flushed skin
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting

What Are Depressants?

Depressants are substances that slow down the central nervous system. Depressants can relax the muscles, induce sleep, relieve anxiety, and prevent seizures. (9)

Common depressants include: (10)

  • Barbiturates (Butalbital, phenobarbital, Pentohal, Seconal, & Nembutal)
  • Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Halcion, Ativan, Klonopin, & Restoril)
  • Sedative-Hypnotics (Lunesta, Ambien, & Sonata)
  • Meprobamate
  • Methaqualone (Quaalude)
  • GHB

Alcohol Can Produce Both Depressant & Stimulant Effects

Is alcohol a depressant or is alcohol a stimulant? Alcohol is in fact a depressant. Though research has found that alcohol can produce both a stimulant and depressant effect. (11) It can be difficult to determine which side effects caused by alcohol are associated with its stimulant or depressant properties. An increase in heart rate, agitation, and dopamine in the brain following alcohol use, appears to be related to its stimulant properties. (12) While cognitive and motor impairments are related to its depressant effects, however, these side effects can present themselves over time with stimulants. (13) Theories regarding alcohol use predict that those with a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder have a reduced sedative response and a larger stimulatory response when compared to others. (14)

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How Do Depressants Interact in the Brain & Body?

The majority of depressants work by increasing a chemical in the brain known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). (15) GABA inhibits brain activity, leading to drowsiness and the feeling of calmness. Over time, an individual may need to ingest greater amounts of a depressant in order to achieve the therapeutic effects that they have experienced in the past. This can lead to development of tolerance, dependence, or addiction. If an individual regularly engages in the use of a depressant, they may experience withdrawal symptoms if the substance is abruptly cut back or suddenly stopped. For those experiencing addiction to a depressant, medically supervised detox may be needed in order to safely stop using the substance.

Common Side Effects of Depressant Use

Due to how depressants interact with the brain and body, unwanted side effects may occur.

Common side effects associated with depressant use include: (16)

  • Sleepiness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Light-headedness
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Impairments in movement and memory
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing

Is There a Link Between the Effects of Alcohol & Depression?

Alcohol use disorder and depression are two conditions that often occur simultaneously. Depression is a mood disorder that can lead to feelings of sadness, loss, anger, and emptiness. Since alcohol is a depressant, it can worsen symptoms of depression and other mood disorders. (17) According to the World Health Organization, approximately 280 million individuals experience depression worldwide. (18) Those experiencing depression may engage in alcohol use as an attempt to self-medicate, which ultimately leads to more feelings of depression. Research has found that children diagnosed with major depression disorder are more likely to engage in alcohol use earlier in life when compared to those without depression. (19)

What Is the Addiction Potential of Depressants?

Individuals often engage in depressant misuse in order to experience temporary feelings of euphoria. (20) Engaging in chronic, daily, or repeated use of a depressant can lead to addiction.

Common depressants and their rates of misuse: (21)

  • Prescription tranquilizers or sedatives – Approximately 4.9 million individuals reported misusing these substances in 2021.
  • Benzodiazepines – Approximately 3.9 million individuals reported misusing these substances in 2021.
  • Alcohol – Approximately 219.2 million individuals reported engaging in alcohol use at some point in their lives. (22)

Substance use disorder rates associated with depressants: (23)

  • Prescription tranquilizers or sedatives – Approximately 2.2 million individuals were diagnosed with a prescription tranquilizer or sedative use disorder.
  • Benzodiazepines – Approximately 0.2 percent of individuals experiencing a substance use disorder experience benzodiazepine use disorder. (24)

Alcohol – Approximately 29.5 million individuals were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder in 2021. (25)

Dangerous Adverse Risks of Overdosing on Depressants

Experiencing an overdose due to depressant use can be dangerous. In 2021, approximately 12,499 individuals experienced a fatal overdose involving benzodiazepines. (26) According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 140,000 individuals die due to alcohol use every year. (27)

What Substances Should Not Be Mixed With Alcohol or Depressants?

Certain substances should not be mixed with alcohol or depressants as an individual risks developing polysubstance use or being addicted to more than one substance at a time. In addition to polysubstance use, and individual risks experiencing an overdose depending on which substances were taken together.

According to the CDC, the following substances should not be mixed with alcohol or depressants: (28)

  • Other depressants
  • Stimulants
  • Opioids

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If you suspect that you or someone you love are experiencing addiction to stimulants, alcohol, or other depressants, treatment may be necessary. At Guardian Recovery, we offer medication assisted treatment and therapeutic interventions to help individuals develop adaptive coping techniques needed for long-term sobriety. One of our Treatment Advisors is ready to speak with you and help guide you through our simple admissions process. A free, no obligation insurance benefits check can be provided in order to determine which of our treatment options is covered by your health insurance plan. Contact us today and start your recovery journey at Guardian Recovery.

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  1. https://www.cdc.gov/dotw/substance-use-disorders/index.html
  2. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/01/04/samhsa-announces-national-survey-drug-use-health-results-detailing-mental-illness-substance-use-levels-2021.html
  3. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/01/04/samhsa-announces-national-survey-drug-use-health-results-detailing-mental-illness-substance-use-levels-2021.html
  4. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Stimulants-2020.pdf
  5. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Stimulants-2020.pdf
  6. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Stimulants-2020.pdf
  7. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Stimulants-2020.pdf
  8. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Stimulants-2020.pdf
  9. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Depressants-2020.pdf
  10. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Depressants-2020.pdf
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21560041/
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21560041/
  13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21560041/
  14. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21560041/
  15. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-cns-depressants
  16. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-cns-depressants
  17. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/alcohol-and-depression
  18. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression
  19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3072781/
  20. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Depressants-2020.pdf
  21. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/what-scope-prescription-drug-misuse
  22. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-topics/alcohol-facts-and-statistics/alcohol-use-united-states-age-groups-and-demographic-characteristics
  23. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/what-scope-prescription-drug-misuse
  24. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30554562/
  25. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/01/04/samhsa-announces-national-survey-drug-use-health-results-detailing-mental-illness-substance-use-levels-2021.html
  26. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/what-scope-prescription-drug-misuse
  27. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-alcohol-deaths.html

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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