Alcohol is by far the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States today. While most people understand that alcohol is technically a drug, they may wonder exactly how it works. As a drug, alcohol is considered to be a depressant, not a stimulant.

What Is a Stimulant?

Stimulants are a class of drugs used recreationally and medically. As their name suggests, stimulants work by stimulating your brain. This leads to increased alertness and energy as well as increased normal body functions such as your heart rate, breathing, digestion and much more.

The most commonly used stimulant is caffeine; however, it is only a mild stimulant and is unlikely to negatively affect the body unless it is used in very high doses. Cocaine and methamphetamine (meth) are two commonly used illicit stimulants that can harm you in “normal” doses. Other stimulants, called amphetamines, are often used for medical reasons but also have the potential for misuse.

What Is a Depressant?

Depressants are the polar opposite of stimulants. Instead of stimulating the brain and the body, they actually slow the brain down. This leads to a relaxed, drowsy feeling and slows breathing, heart rate, digestion and other bodily functions. Like stimulants, depressants are used both recreationally and medically.

On the medical side, opioids and benzodiazepines are used to treat pain and improve anxiety-related mood problems. On the recreational side, opioids are a commonly misused depressant and are notorious for stopping breathing when too much is used.

Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. The ethanol that alcohol contains stimulates GABA receptors in the brain; these receptors suppress brain signals and lead to a slowed neurological activity. 

People may wonder if certain types of alcohol may be considered stimulants. Tequila, for example, is often thought of as a stimulant. Alcohol, however, is never a stimulant and always acts as a depressant. As alcohol suppresses normal brain function, it can decrease normal inhibitions, making it seem like it is stimulating rather than sedating. The decreased inhibition that alcohol causes, however, is part of its depressant effect.

Is Alcohol a Sedative?

Sedatives are another term for depressants but relate more to the sleep-inducing aspect of these drugs. Alcohol is a sedative and will help you get to sleep more easily. However, the sleep you get while drunk will be less restful and ultimately make you more tired than sleeping without alcohol in your system. While alcohol meets the definition of a sedative, it should not be used to get to sleep, as the rest you get will not be fully refreshing.

Effects of Alcohol on the Body

Alcohol primarily affects the brain; however, changes in the brain impact the whole body. Alcohol increases the activity of receptors that suppress brain activity, which affects many different systems throughout the body.

Stimulant Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant. There are, however, effects of alcohol that could be mistaken for being caused by stimulation even though they are ultimately caused by suppression of brain activity. These effects include:

  • Decreased inhibition
  • Increased assertiveness
  • Increased urine production
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased promiscuity

It is important to realize that any effect of alcohol that may be considered stimulation is actually caused by its depressant effects.

Depressant Effects of Alcohol

Because alcohol is a depressant, most of its effects are very much in line with normal depressant effects. The depressant effects of alcohol include:

  • Reduced inhibition
  • Impaired coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired judgment
  • Confusion
  • Memory problems
  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Slow breathing
  • Coma
  • Death

In severe cases of binge drinking, alcohol can suppress your body to the extent that it cannot perform basic levels of functions necessary to live. This condition, called alcohol poisoning, tends to occur when alcohol slows breathing to such an extent that the body cannot get the oxygen it needs to survive.

Does Alcohol Cause Depression?

As a depressant, people often wonder if alcohol causes depression. While the term “depressant” and “depression” are similar, being a depressant does not mean that the substance will cause depression but that it depresses the body’s normal functions. While there is a difference between being a depressant and causing depression, research does show that alcohol use increases the risk of developing depression, especially if it is used heavily.

What Can Happen by Mixing Alcohol and Other Depressants?

Mixing alcohol and other depressants is very dangerous. Almost 12,000 opioid deaths in 2021 also involved alcohol. When alcohol and other depressants are combined, each substance’s depressant effects increase, raising the risk of an overdose. Combining depressants can cause even relatively safe doses of depressants to reach dangerous levels.

Alcohol Detox

Alcohol addiction can be dangerous, leading to both short-term and long-term health risks. The first step of stopping alcohol use is detox. During detox, the alcohol in your blood is completely eliminated, and the body must adjust to the absence of alcohol. During this stage, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms can develop. 

Because alcohol detox is very unpleasant and can even be dangerous, most medical experts recommend a medical detox. Medical alcohol detox involves being monitored by healthcare professionals and treated as symptoms or complications develop. This makes detox more comfortable and safer.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment in Columbus, OH

At The Recovery Village Columbus Drug and Alcohol Rehab, we understand that stopping alcohol use can be difficult. We provide both inpatient and outpatient detox and rehab, supporting even the most serious cases of alcohol addiction with the greatest degree of flexibility, comfort and safety possible.

If you or a loved one are struggling to stop using alcohol or are suffering negative effects from misusing alcohol, we are here for you. Contact us today to learn how we can help you start on your journey to lasting freedom from addiction.

Editor – Abby Doty
Abby Doty graduated from Hamline University in 2021 with a Bachelor's in English and Psychology. She has written and edited creative and literary work as well as academic pieces focused primarily on psychology and mental health. Read more
Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more

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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Overview of Alcohol Consumption.” 2022. Accessed August 4, 2022.

Kuria, Mary W., et al. “The Association between Alcohol Dependen[…]r Alcohol Dependence.” ISRN Psychiatry, January 26, 2012. Accessed August 4, 2022.

White, Aaron M., et al. “Alcohol-Related Deaths During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” JAMA, March 18, 2022. Accessed August 4, 2022.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.