Understanding the Effects of Alcohol: Is It a Depressant?

When the going gets tough and stressful situations pile up one after the other, it’s common for people around the world to take a step back, pop open cold ones with friends, and make a toast during happy hour to unwind. Drinking alcoholic beverages—be it classic beers, hard spirits, or deliciously mixed and colorful drinks like cocktails—has often been the go-to way to pick up the mood. 

But did you know that despite alcohol’s way of lifting spirits at the moment, it is actually considered a depressant? Many people find the term ‘depressant’ confusing since most associate it with a feeling of depression; that’s why it’s hard to believe that drinking alcohol can be a depressant. 

What Does Depressant Mean? 

It’s understandable how people commonly associate depression with depressants, but the truth is that the two terms have nothing to do with each other. Instead of causing emotional distress, depressants are a class of drugs that impede the central nervous system and the brain’s activity, which works by “depressing” the nerve receptors so it cannot get or respond to the brain’s messages.

When nerve receptors fail to deliver the activity sent to the brain, the lack of awareness creates a negative wave of side effects such as a significant change in one’s decision-making skills, perceptions, movements, emotions, and senses. That’s why when people take depressants, it’s important to take them in a safe environment as it can open up a myriad of risks—from getting into accidents, being unable to breathe, and eventually death. 

Alcohol and Depressants

Alcohol is known to impair physical and psychological activity, both of which are tell-tale signs of a depressed central nervous system. No matter the type of alcohol, all cause the same effects mainly due to the common ingredient known as ‘ethanol,’ a clear and colorless liquid that causes beer, wine, or brandy to become alcoholic as it undergoes a fermentation process. 

The ethanol passes through the bloodstream, which then interferes with the central nervous system activity and the neurotransmitters from the brain. The way alcohol interacts with the receptors can compromise functions like speech, reflexes, and coordination. 

So despite momentarily increasing serotonin and dopamine levels to make you feel good while you’re drunk, alcohol is still classified as a depressant as it impedes physical and psychological activity. That’s why alcohol can mess with the user’s judgment, movement, emotions, and sense of awareness, so anyone under the influence is at risk of experiencing accidental injuries. 

understanding the effects of alcohol is it a depressant
Understanding the Effects of Alcohol: Is It a Depressant?

Why is Alcohol Considered a Depressant? Understanding How It Works

Alcohol initially acts as a stimulant when it first enters the body. The happy feelings start when the person’s Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) rises as the feel-good chemicals as dopamine and serotonin stimulate the body’s norepinephrine, which creates feelings of excitement and arousal. 

Twenty percent of the alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, reaching the stomach and then rising to 80 percent as it enters the small intestine. This delivers the alcohol content to the brain and throughout the body, creating a fleeting sense of euphoria. 

Once the BAC drops, it leaves negative feelings in its wake, from confusion, depression, to fatigue. This is because it impacts the Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) receptor in the brain, which causes memory loss, poor motor activity, a lack of awareness after alcohol consumption, and the following: 

  • Slurred speech
  • Clumsiness
  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Lapses in memory
  • Seizures

The gravity of the effects also depends on the amount of alcohol consumed, so the higher the amount, the more dangerous the effects become since it can lower the body temperature and even compromise breathing. Not to mention, consuming too much alcohol all in one session can lead to alcohol poisoning.

What are the Effects of Alcohol?

Alcohol helps people shake off their stress, loosen up, and feel happy at the moment. It becomes a confidence booster on top of being a relaxant caused by the alcoholic substances traveling through the brain and stimulating euphoria-inducing chemicals. 

When a person becomes tipsy, the alcohol hits a sweet spot wherein feelings of pleasure, relief, and a rewarding sensation spreads. However, the lighthearted feelings can quickly take a turn for the worse as one’s drunken levels increase. 

Drinking occasionally doesn’t exempt anyone from feeling the strong, intoxicating effects of alcohol, so anyone who drinks will likely feel the common, short-term side effects below: 

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of coordination
  • Weakened sense of critical judgment
  • Mood swings
  • Reduced core body temperature
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Passing out
  • Vomiting

As for people who drink regularly and have developed a dangerous dependence on alcohol, long-term abuse can take a toll on both your mind and body in more ways than one. Some of the side effects include the following: 

  • Memory loss
  • Loss of attention span
  • Trouble learning
  • Steatosis (fatty liver)
  • Throat, mouth, larynx, breast, liver, colorectal, or esophageal cancer.
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Irregular heartbeat

As mentioned above, alcohol abuse can impair one’s physical and psychological health as it makes way for other deadlier chronic diseases linked to liver damage, cardiovascular disease, and more. 

Can Alcohol Cause Depression?

You know that alcohol is a depressant, which doesn’t necessarily cause depression. However, research reveals that alcohol can interact with a person’s neurotransmitters in a way related to mood disorders. Keep in mind that the effects only occur when the person is a heavy drinker as abuse can change the chemicals in the brain, causing an increasing alcohol dependence that results in depression. 

Studies also show that people who abuse alcohol are four times likely to develop depression, six times more at risk for getting bipolar disorder, and four times more likely to have a generalized anxiety disorder. Similarly, people struggling with mood disorders are vulnerable to becoming alcoholics, especially if they opt to stop their antidepressant medication so they can drink alcohol. 

The Bottom Line: Learning About Alcohol to Improve the Way You Drink Moving Forward 

Drinking alcohol is a celebrated past-time for many people, and while it comes with addictive risks, it’s a common activity that can be fun when it is responsibly taken. A few sips of beer or wine every night can even have positive, health-boosting effects, so it goes to show that the impact of alcohol on one’s body and mind largely depends on the amount consumed in one sitting. 

Understanding how alcoholic beverages can act as a depressant alongside sedatives, tranquilizers, and anesthetics can help people drink at appropriate times and amounts, so people can let loose responsibly without becoming vulnerable to its risky effects. Knowing how it influences your body and mind makes it easier to drink lightly and relax.