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Is Alcohol a Depressant?

06 December 2022

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The word depressant may be the last thing you’d think of when describing a glass of wine you’re having with dinner or a pint of beer you’re drinking with friends. That’s mainly because people associate alcohol with social settings and its ability to make you feel good.

The truth is, alcohol is actually a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. We will explain why alcohol falls under this category and how it can impact your physical and mental health.

How does alcohol affect the brain and central nervous system

Alcohol is known as a psychotropic depressant because it slows down your central nervous system. When you drink alcohol, a complex process occurs in your brain that inhibits neurons by impacting their ability to transmit impulses. At the same time, alcohol also increases the production of neurotransmitters that make you feel good.

As a review, your body’s nervous system plays an important role in communication between the brain and the rest of the body to control every day functions such as seeing, talking, walking and breathing.

The nervous system is made up of the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system contains neurons in the brain and spinal cord, while the peripheral nervous system contains neurons in the head and body. The job of the peripheral nervous system is to carry messages from the brain to other parts of the body.

Neurons use both electrical and chemical signals to communicate information – chemical signals are needed because electrical signals alone can’t transfer from one neuron to another. The chemical signals, known as neurotransmitters, help bind neuron receptors.

Neurotransmitters help carry these messages to neurons. As alcohol enters the body, it binds to certain neurotransmitters that are responsible for inhibiting communication and causes them to slow down, resulting in decreased brain activity. This lag in processing slows down your alertness, balance, movement and ability to think.

Among the neurotransmitters impacted, here is an overview of the three most impactful changes:

Dopamine and serotonin: These two neurotransmitters are part of your brain’s reward system – the release of dopamine and serotonin make you feel good, which explains why people like how alcohol can give them an euphoric feeling. However, alcohol can trick the brain into thinking you need it to feel great. This is how addiction occurs.

Glutamate: Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, meaning it increases brain activity. Alcohol suppresses the release of glutamate, resulting in slower brain function.

Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA): GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it decreases brain activity to calm and slow your body down. Alcohol increases the release of GABA, making your brain function and process things slower than normal. Alcohol has the same effect on GABA as prescription drugs like Xanax or Valium. Both are benzodiazepines that increase GABA to relax and calm your central nervous system down.

Short-terms effects of alcohol

Although alcohol alters the ability for your brain to communicate properly, how it impacts an individual will vary by person.

For example, it can make some people happy and talkative while others become angry and engage in more risky behaviors.

Most of all, alcohol can impact your reaction time, making it dangerous and illegal to drink and drive. In other words, you think you’re acting and processing things normally, but your brain is slower in its decision-making skills and ability to see objects.

Here is an overview of common side effects of central nervous system depressants:

  • Poor coordination
  • Confusion
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing
  • Impaired vision
  • Delayed reaction time

Consuming a higher dose of a depressant such as alcohol can lead to more severe issues such as vomiting, dehydration, irregular breathing, memory loss (blackouts) or losing consciousness.

It is also dangerous to mix alcohol and other central nervous system depressants, as the side effects can be even more magnified. For example, taking Xanax while drinking is potentially lethal because it can lead to over sedation.

Alcohol and depression

Alcohol is a depressant not because it makes you depressed but because it depresses brain activity. Still, the name alone makes it confusing for some people.

This is largely in part due to the correlation between the two. While alcohol can initially boost dopamine and serotonin, a crash occurs and you’ll quickly become deficient and unbalanced with these happy chemicals. The large swing of emotions, especially for those who drink alcohol regularly, can lead to mental health problems.

Depression and alcohol is a bit of a chicken or the egg discussion. People who either abuse alcohol or are dependent on it are at risk of becoming depressed. On the other hand, people who are depressed can turn to alcohol as a way of self-soothing and self-medicating. One researched study showed people who were dependent on alcohol were 3.7 times more likely to also have major depressive disorder.

The more you drink, the more tolerance you build up and it becomes harder to tap into the happy chemicals. Plus, the more your brain relies on alcohol to produce dopamine and serotonin, the less it relies on the body to pick up the slack. As a result, these neurotransmitters will remain low without the presence of alcohol. This can lead to feelings of depression or anxiety.


If you or a loved one has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, know that recovery is within reach. INTEGRIS Health Arcadia Trials Center for Addiction Recovery can help you get your life back in order. 

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