In line with common knowledge, alcohol is considered to be a depressant. However, this doesn’t explain the whole story. You may wonder why alcohol is categorized as a depressant since many experience a buzz and feelings of excitement, energy and even aggression when drinking. Although it is a depressant, alcohol also shares some properties with stimulants.  

As you begin drinking, you may feel elation, increased confidence and a sense of extroversion, similar to when using stimulants. However, you also may experience feelings of confusion, tiredness, slurred speech or depression during and after drinking.These symptoms fall in line with the depressant category of drugs. 

So what exactly is happening here?  Is alcohol a depressant really? Yes, but there is still a lot to uncover in terms of exactly how alcohol affects our bodies and brains. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of research on the topic that can offer insight into alcohol’s physiological effects.

What is a depressant?

Depressants work to slow down the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the body’s corresponding functions. Generally, when taken, they produce feelings of euphoria, relaxation and calmness. They may also cause slowed reaction times, mood swings, nausea, feelings of drowsiness and, in large doses, vomiting, unconsciousness and even death. 

Depressants come in various forms and can be legal or illegal. Alcohol is an example of a legal depressant, however its use is restricted. Other legal depressants include benzodiazepines, barbiturates and sedative-hypnotic medications.

Prescription depressants are used to treat anxiety, muscle spasms, some forms of epilepsy and sleep disorders. They are widely used and, unfortunately widely, misused. They can be very addictive, cause dependency, and should only be used when prescribed by a doctor. 

Depressants vs stimulants

While depressants slow the CNS and its corresponding functions, such as breathing, stimulants have the opposite effect. Stimulants speed up messages sent between the brain and body. As a result, users can experience a boost of energy, more alertness, euphoria and increased confidence.

However, there can be many adverse effects, especially when taken in higher doses. These include rapid heartbeats, increased blood pressure, mood swings, anxiety, dehydration, suppressed appetite, nausea, high body temperature, seizures, coma and even death. 

Similar to depressants, stimulants come in many forms, both legal and illegal, some of which require a prescription. Legal stimulants include caffeine and nicotine. An example of a legal stimulant that can be prescribed for medicinal purposes is amphetamines (speed). However, it is also widely abused. Illegal forms of the substance include cocaine (coke), crystal meth (ice) and mephedrone. Stimulants can cause tolerance in users and who may develop dependence. They can be especially dangerous when mixed or used with other categories of drugs and alcohol. 

Side effects of depressants

Depressants can be helpful to many suffering from certain conditions. However, they also can cause physical and mental side effects, especially when abused. These include

  • Confusion 
  • Disorientation
  • Weakness
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of memory
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Low blood pressure and slowed breathing
  • Coma
  • Death

If you believe that you have a problem with alcohol, another depressant or other drugs, contact The Liberty Ranch to learn more about treatment options.

Click the tabs below to learn more about alcohol, its depressant effects on the body, the dangers of mixing depressants and other drugs, and whether you may have a problem with depression or alcoholism.  

 

More on depressants

Types of depressants

If you have wondered, “is alcohol a depressant?”, you have probably also wondered what other drugs are considered depressants, why they are used and how they affect the body.

Barbiturates

Barbiturates are an older form of depressants used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. They can be quite habit forming; Users can quickly develop a tolerance, meaning they require more and more of the drug to achieve the same feeling. Barbiturates are also known as tranquilizers. They can cause memory loss, sleepiness, and the inability to speak clearly. Pentothal, Fiorina, Phenobarbital, Nembutal and Seconal are all examples of barbiturates. If abused, overdose, coma or death can occur.

Benzodiazepines

Like barbiturates, benzodiazepines (benzos) are used to treat conditions including insomnia and anxiety, as well seizure disorders and muscle issues. Although they were developed to replace barbiturates, they are also quite addictive. Usually they are only prescribed for short term use. If overused, misused or abused, the brain can become dependent on the drug, needing it to produce the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter. If you are benzodiazepine-dependent, it is important to seek medical supervision when detoxing from the drug. Widely used benzodiazepines include Xanax, Halcion, Ativan, Restoril, Valium, Klonopin and the illegal Rohypnol. 

Sedative-hypnotic

Sedative-hypnotics are depressants prescribed for the short-term treatment of insomnia. Although they are considered less addictive than benzodiazepines, they can still cause dependency. Sonata, Ambien and Lunesta are examples of commonly prescribed sedative-hypnotics. Some may experience sleep walking, daytime drowsiness, and other side effects when taking this depressant.

Opioids

Opioids, while usually classified separately from depressants, also depress certain functions of the body´s CNS. Opioids are generally prescribed as a painkiller but have a high risk of causing dependency. Long-term use changes the way nerve cells in the brain communicate. This means, if someone stops using the drug “cold turkey”, brain cells can rebound and become overactive. For this reason and to avoid a number of associated risks, detox also requires medical supervision. Over the past 20 years, opioid use, abuse and related overdose deaths have increased. An example of an illegal opiate is heroin. Prescription opiates include morphine, codeine, Oxycontin and fentanyl. Prescription opioids are heavily abused in the U.S.

Effects of alcohol on the brain and body

What are alcohol’s effects on the body and brain?

Alcohol and other depressants work on the body’s Central Nervous System (CNS). Unlike stimulants, which do the reverse, depressants slow the CNS down. Because it is so integral to the body and its functions, depressing the CNS can have a number of impacts on a person’s physical, mental and emotional state. These effects vary depending on age, weight, tolerance and other factors. 

The role of the Central Nervous system

The CNS is part of the body’s nervous system and comprises the brain and spinal cord. Working as a “computer”, it is responsible for gathering information from all over the body and coordinating activity. The CNS regulates key bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, temperature and much more. It is also in charge of emotions, thoughts and movements. By slowing CNS functions, depressants like alcohol can affect many physical and mental activities and processes.

Drinking and blood alcohol content

When you drink, alcohol is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and carried throughout the body. It remains in the blood until the liverwhich is primarily responsible for breaking down the toxic substancecan process it. Other organs also help to excrete alcohol, but are less significant in the process. 

The liver can only metabolize so much alcoholapproximately 1 drink per hour. This means what cannot be broken down remains in one’s blood and reaches the brain, consequently affecting its functioning. Exactly how much is measured by Blood Alcohol Content (BAC), which rises with consumption, causing feelings of drunkenness to take over.

As one’s BAC begins to rise, drinkers may experience stimulant effects. Studies suggest that drinking can increase levels of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter associated with arousal and feelings of excitement. It can also increase impulsivity, as many report lowered inhibitions while drinking.

However, once the BAC reaches 0.05mg/l and above, things begin to change and the depressant effects kick in. These symptoms continue even as the BAC begins to drop, as one may still experience the depressant effects of alcohol. Higher levels of BAC can lead to slowed breathing, inability to think clearly, a lack of coordination and mood changes. Blood concentrations of .25 and higher can lead to severe impairment, alcohol poisoning or overdose, coma and even death.

How does drinking affect your brain?

Using neurons, the brain sends and receives signals to and from different parts of the body. As alcohol moves through the bloodstream and into the brain, it interferes with these communication pathways. The signals are slowed, thus affecting other functions including breathing. 

You may begin to feel alcohol’s impact on the brain in as quickly as 5 minutes. Blurred vision, trouble with motor control, memory lapses, and problems thinking clearly are all effects of the depressant on the brain. Additionally, drinking can have a number of negative long-term consequences. Recent studies show brain shrinkage may occur even in moderate drinkers and it has also been linked to a higher risk of dementia. Long-term drinking can cause permanent impairment to the brain, which may not be reversible for some. 

Mixing alcohol and substances

Can you mix alcohol and other drugs?

Mixing alcohol with other drugs—whether prescribed by a medical professional or notcan have disastrous and deadly results. 

Mixing alcohol and depressants

he substance can strengthen the effects of other CNS depressants when combined causing greater impairment. This includes problems breathing, sedation, cardiac issues, overdose, unconsciousness and even death. When alcohol and benzodiazepines are consumed together, one may experience slowed reaction times, loss of memory and loss of coordination.

Similarly, when mixed with barbiturates, alcohol can impair coordination, cause respiratory depression, affect consciousness, and suppress other vital functions. As a result, the possibility of overdose is likely. Additionally, both of these drugs can impair a person’s ability to drive and operate heavy machinery. This can be especially worrisome if the user is unaware of these impairments and carries on with his or her regular activities. 

Mixing alcohol and other types drugs

Combining opiates with alcohol is extremely dangerous. The effects of mixing the painkiller with alcohol are similar to those experienced when drinking and taking benzodiazepines or barbiturates. They can cause a lack of oxygen to the brain, which may result in long term damage. In fact, alcohol has been involved in over half of heroin and methadone opiate overdoses.

Additionally, mixing alcohol with other drugs such as stimulants like cocaine or amphetamines can be very risky and cause overdose or death. When using these stimulants, the amount of alcohol needed to feel buzzed or drunk increases. After effects of ingesting this combination can be damaging as well. The comedown can cause or increase feelings of anxiety and depression.

Identifying alcohol abuse and depression

Alcohol and depression

Depression and alcohol use disorders are both widespread and a debilitating challenge for many. An estimated 17.3 million and 14.4 million adults in the U.S, respectively, suffer or have suffered from these conditions.

Depression is a mood disorder that can cause people to feel empty, sad and struggle with their daily responsibilities. Depression differs from feeling down as it lasts for an extended period of time and interrupts your ability to engage in your normal life. There are many forms of depression including bipolar disorder, major depression and postpartum depression. 

Alcohol use disorder is a “chronic relapsing brain disorder characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Unfortunately, many individuals who suffer from alcohol issues experience depression as well. Studies have found depression in almost  ⅔ of alcohol dependent people. 

Can alcohol make you depressed? 

Drinking while depressed, especially heavy drinking, can cause a number of issues. Some drink to cope with depression. While the initial high or buzz from drinking can cause one to feel happier at the moment, this feeling may only last for a brief period and have negative overall impacts. 

It is unclear if drinking causes depression or if depression causes one to have a drinking problem. However, it is evident that two are linked and one issue may propel or worsen the other. In fact, people who suffer from major depression are more likely to also have a drinking problem. Long-term alcohol abuse can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs, resulting in health conditions that may cause depression. Connections between the two issues can be seen at a young age: For some, beginning in childhood or adolescence. Children with depressive symptoms have been shown to be more likely to begin drinking earlier than those without.

Can you drink if you are depressed?

Drinking heavily while suffering from depression can exacerbate the situation and have negative consequences. Drinking can interfere with depression treatment, even in those who do not have an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol can also interact with depression medications, causing antidepressants to be less effective in doing their job. If you are taking antidepressants, you should avoid heavy drinking and consult with your doctor on whether it is okay to drink at all.

Alcohol can exacerbate symptoms of depression, and depressed people are also more likely to overdrink, making the two a bad combination. As a depressant, alcohol naturally brings you down and reduces decision-making processes. In essence, while intoxicated, you may be more likely to make bad decisions that lead to negative life consequences, work issues and relationship problems. These consequences can affect and reinforce one´s depression. Heavy drinking and alcoholism can be especially bad for those suffering from depression or a depressive episode. Moreover, depressed people are also more likely to consider suicide. This is concerning as suicidal thoughts are considered to be a risk factor for overdosing on substances such as alcohol. 

Are you depressed or alcohol dependent?

Alcoholism and depression are two issues that can negatively affect a person’s life, relationships, and wellbeing. If you believe that you might be struggling with one or both of these issues, now is the time to address the problem. Although social drinking occasionally is acceptable for many, if you are getting heavily intoxicated or drinking to cope with life’s issues, this can be an indication of a deeper problem.

 

What to do if you have depression and a drinking problem

If you believe you suffer from either of these issues, or both, the first step is seeking help. Addressing issues of alcoholism and depression can significantly improve your life.  Interestingly, drinkers with depression have been shown to feel better a few weeks after stopping drinking. Additionally, after a year of abstinence from drinking, there is evidence that some cognitive impairment and damage to the brain structure caused by drinking can improve.

Depression can be treated through a mix of therapy and medication. You should consult a trained psychologist or psychiatrist if you are exhibiting symptoms. If you feel that you suffer from both depression and alcoholism, joining an addiction treatment program allows you to work on both problems and recognize how your drinking may affect your depression and vice versa. Many treatment programs seek to address addiction while also providing support and therapy for this and other comorbid mental health issues including anxiety, mood disorders and eating disorders. 

Seeking treatment for alcoholism

Finding treatment for an alcohol use disorder is an important step for your mental health, physical health and the wellbeing of yourself and those around you. Alcohol rehabilitation programs offer a supportive and structured approach to achieving sobriety. Many use alcohol as a way to avoid confronting life’s difficulties. Rehab programs teach more positive ways of coping and can support you in confronting emotional, relational, and mental health challenges. A  strong rehab program will not only address your addiction, but also provide individual and family counseling, offer medication management, and teach life skills and help clients transition back into their regular lives. Contact us if you are interested in learning more about what you can do today to begin recovery and start improving your life.