Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

woman holding bottle of wine

You pay attention to the foods, drinks, and substances you’re putting into your body, but do you know the difference between stimulants and depressants? Stimulants ramp up activity within your central nervous system (CNS) while depressants slow those same systems down.

For instance, coffee is a depressant. If you drink just a cup or two, you might notice that it gives you an uptick in focus and helps you jumpstart your day. However, if you drink too much, you may start to feel jittery and anxious due to overstimulation.

Knowing this, you might be wondering, “Is alcohol a stimulant or depressant?” The answer is a little more nuanced than you might think, so let’s take a look.

Stimulants vs. Depressants

Stimulants and depressants each affect your body in different ways. Let’s break it down.


Stimulants are drugs that give an extra boost of energy to your CNS. As you consume them, they increase your breathing rate and your heart rate.

At the same time, they also raise your blood pressure and help suppress your appetite (again, think coffee). Mentally and emotionally, you may experience a rush of euphoria when you take stimulants.

Some of the most common stimulants include:

  • Nicotine
  • Caffeine
  • Adderall and Ritalin (prescribed to treat ADHD and related conditions)
  • Methamphetamine (illegal outside of medical prescriptions)
  • Cocaine (illegal)
  • Ecstasy/MDMA (illegal)


Compared to stimulants, depressants have the opposite effect on your body. They begin to decrease activity within your CNS, including your brain.

These substances slow down your heart rate. They also decrease activity within your respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.

When you consume them, you may notice that you feel more relaxed or even drowsy. You may also experience temporary relief from feelings of anxiety or depression.

However, the greater quantity you consume, the more dangerous depressants become. If your CNS and cardiovascular systems become very slowed down, this can make it difficult for your lungs and heart to function as normal. This can lead to a coma or even death.

One of the most commonly abused classes of depressants is opioid medications. While these substances can be effective forms of pain management when used correctly, they are also very addictive due to the feelings of joy and elation they produce.

The primary types of depressants include:

  • Alcohol
  • Opioids (morphine, codeine, hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), and fentanyl, illegal outside of medical prescriptions)
  • Benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety medications such as Valium and Xanax, illegal outside of medical prescriptions)
  • Barbiturates (seizure medications such as amobarbital, illegal outside of medical prescriptions)
  • Heroin (illegal)

The way your body reacts to a stimulant or depressant is unique to you. These effects aren’t the same for everyone, and can vary based on the following characteristics:

  • Body cheistry
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Sex
  • Alcohol tolerance level

Understanding the Basics of Alcohol

Technically speaking, alcohol is a psychotropic depressant. The word “psychotropic” means it affects your mental state.

As mentioned, alcohol has a direct effect on your CNS. As it impacts your brain, it can alter your mood, actions, and behavior.

The specific type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks is ethyl alcohol or ethanol. Manufacturers transform this substance into beverages through the process of fermentation, which converts carbohydrates into alcohol.

If you’re familiar with different types of drinks, then you know that they can vary in terms of their alcohol by volume. For instance, a 12-ounce beer may only contain around 5% alcohol, while 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits can contain up to 40%. Still, both of those portions are considered to be a standard drink.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Body?

When you consume alcohol, a majority of it is absorbed into your bloodstream by way of your intestines. As blood naturally distributes throughout your body and brain, it also takes the alcohol it contains with it.

While one role of your liver is to metabolize and eliminate alcohol from your system, the blood distribution process usually occurs faster than this elimination can take place. As a result, you’ll begin to feel the effects of the substance before long.

Let’s take a look at how it affects your mental and physical health.

Mental Changes

As a depressant, alcohol works to slow down the activity in your brain. This is why you might notice that your reaction times get slower the more you drink. You may also make decisions or act in ways that aren’t typical of your normal behavior.

Within your brain, alcohol boosts the levels of a specific neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that control communication between your nerve cells.

When GABA levels are up, you may experience positive mental changes, such as:

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Lower levels of stress
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduced fear

While these changes in your brain might seem pleasant at first, they can soon transform into more negative feelings. Regardless of your mood, you might find that you suddenly feel more angry, irritated, or depressed.

Often, this traces back to the fact that alcohol prohibits your brain from processing information at a quick, normal pace. This makes it harder to determine what you’re really feeling and how the decisions you’re making might affect you down the road.

It’s this uncertainty that can trigger that negative reaction. You may also begin to feel distrustful or anxious as you become less sure of yourself and your surroundings.

Physical Changes

In addition to the mental changes listed above, the first physical sign you’ll notice when you drink alcohol is likely dehydration. This is because alcohol works as a diuretic, stimulating your body to eliminate fluids from your blood through your renal system (which includes your kidneys, bladder, and ureters).

If you’ve ever experienced an uncomfortable hangover the morning after drinking, then you know that the fuzzy mouth you feel is a definite sign of dehydration. Other short-term physical changes that you might notice include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Increased urination
  • Poor sleep patterns

It’s also important to keep in mind that drinking alcohol can put you at a higher risk of slips, falls, and injuries. As your perceptions alter and your decision-making abilities weaken, this change in judgment could lead to dangerous consequences.

Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

We’ve covered that alcohol is classified as a depressant, but many people get confused on this point. Some people believe it to be a stimulant, similar to marijuana or caffeine.

That’s because when you first consume it, the substance has an anti-depressant effect. In fact, it triggers your brain to release more dopamine, which is commonly known as the feel-good chemical.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that can not only improve your mood and increase your ability to feel pleasure but also bring you feelings of energy and stimulating effects.

This explains why when you first consume alcohol, you may feel elated, relaxed, and less stressed than you did at first. While this might be true if you only drink one or two glasses of wine or beer, those initial stimulating effects may be all that you feel.

However, once you consume more, those effects will soon shift into depressant territory. You may feel like you’re losing coordination, or begin to act out of character. Those effects can become much more pronounced if you overdose on the substance.

Symptoms of Alcohol Overdose

An overdose is a serious, life-threatening condition that occurs when an individual drinks an excessive amount of alcohol. Regardless of whether they’re drinking alone or with a crowd, it’s possible to slip into this dangerous territory, especially as they begin to lose their inhibitions and sense of judgment.

Some of the most common signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • Mental confusion and disorientation
  • Difficulty maintaining consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Sweaty or clammy skin
  • Low body temperature
  • Vomiting

In addition, individuals who are in the throes of an overdose may also experience dulled responses. This can affect their body’s normal reflexes, such as their gag reflex, which can lead to choking.

Due to its ability to both invigorate you and dull your mind and body, alcohol can be seen as both a stimulant and a depressant. Other substances that have this dual effect include cocaine and nicotine. You may enjoy the positive, uplifting effects of the substance when you first take it, but that stimulant reaction is short-lived.

As it begins to wane, the depressive effects can begin to set in. When they do, they can be incredibly profound, affecting the totality of your body and mind. This is one of the reasons why an alcohol addiction can be so difficult and painful to work through.

Seek Support for Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is a serious condition that can have long-reaching effects on individuals and the people they love. Is alcohol a stimulant or depressant? It can be both, though it’s classified as the latter.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use disorder, we’re here to help. At Purpose Healing Center, we provide a variety of programs and therapies, from residential and inpatient programs to outpatient, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs. Our approach is multi-faceted, and we can help you find a treatment that works for you.

To learn more and take that first step, contact us today for a free assessment!