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Is Alcohol a Depressant or Stimulant?

Introduction

There’s nothing quite like coming home after a long day at work and enjoying a nice glass of wine on the porch while soaking up the afternoon sun or getting done with yard work for the day and popping the top on your favorite cold brew. I think most could agree with that sentiment, yet also realize how hard it can be to stop at just one or two, and may find yourself asking “is alcohol a depressant or stimulant?”.

I have found this to be especially true during times of intense, prolonged stress. Over time, what used to be having a drink here and there turns into a nightly ritual. What used to be a solid night of rest turns into tossing and turning. Each morning comes with the regret of having had those comforting beverages the night before. Rinse and repeat. 

If you’ve landed on this page, chances are you or a loved one have had a similar experience. The downward spiral may have led you to ask the question, “Is alcohol a depressant or stimulant?”. Rather than just providing you with an answer to that burning question, I’d like the opportunity to explain the “why” behind the answer and give you some practical tips to live by. 

Stimulants

What is a stimulant? 

Is alcohol a stimulant? While it can initially have some stimulant affects, no, alcohol is not considered a stimulant. Two of the most widely used stimulants are caffeine and nicotine. Prescription strength stimulants are prescribed by medical providers to treat various conditions, including depression, narcolepsy, and ADHD. There are illegal stimulants, which we will not delve into, at this time. 

How do stimulants work?

Stimulants come in various forms and are known to increase focus, energy, and a feeling of well-being. Stimulants create a release of Dopamine and Norepinephrine. Dopamine is our “feel good” neurotransmitter and norepinephrine causes a rise in blood pressure, heart rate and alertness by increasing brain activity. Over time, as our bodies adapt to these stimulants, we require more and more to achieve the same effect. 

Depressants 

What is a depressant? 

Is alcohol a depressant? Yes. Alcohol is one of the most widely used and abused non-prescription depressants. Prescription depressants are prescribed by medical providers to treat various medical conditions, such as anxiety, seizures and sleep disorders. Brand names you may be familiar with include Xanax, Valium and Ambien. 

How do depressants work?

Depressants come in various forms and are known to have a calming effect. Depressants cause a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate and alertness by slowing brain activity. Like stimulants, our bodies adapt to depressants over time and we may require more and more to achieve the same results. And of course, there are illegal depressants that will not be covered in this post.

Sleep, Stress and Alcohol 

Stress

Stress is generally regarded as a trigger for alcohol consumption, promoting a motivation to drink. This relationship has a catch, however.  While alcohol does have anti-anxiety, tension-reducing properties, prolonged excessive alcohol consumption serves as a potential stressor, in and of itself, causing an imbalance in our bodies brain reward and stress response systems. In other words, alcohol can both alleviate stress and provoke a stress response (1).

Sleep

If you find yourself asking “is alcohol a depressant or stimulant?” consider what makes you reach for that alcoholic beverage. Many individuals choose to drink alcohol for its sleep-promoting effects; however, alcohol is a known sleep disruptor. 

Impact of Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking and insomnia have a bi-directional pathway. Meaning, heavy drinking predicts future insomnia symptoms and likewise, insomnia symptoms increase the risk of future heavy drinking behavior. In fact, individuals with heavy alcohol use report a 36-91% prevalence of insomnia, compared to 10% prevalence in the general population. Heavy drinking is defined as consuming ≥ 5 drinks per day for ≥ 5 days within the past 30 days (2).

Sleep Cycle

With moderate alcohol intake, studies have shown minimal effect on sleep the first half of the night, but decreased REM (rapid eye movement) sleep during the second half of the night. Heavy drinkers may have a hard time falling asleep, spend less time sleeping and experience an increase in the number of times they wake up after falling asleep (3). This is partly due to the disruption that alcohol causes in the body’s circadian rhythm (normal sleep wake cycle) and a delayed onset of melatonin secretion. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for the onset of sleep at night (2).

(Diagram not to scale. For visual purposes only)

Health Benefits

According to the American Heart Association, no research has proven a direct cause and effect relationship between alcohol consumption and improved heart health. Potential heart health benefits from consuming red wine, such as small improvements in HDL (good cholesterol) and reduced heart disease risk, can be obtained by eating flavonoid and antioxidant rich foods, such as red grape juice or blueberries. 

In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 does not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason, including potential health benefits. According to the Dietary Guidelines, emerging evidence suggests that overall health risk is worsened in individuals that consume alcohol, even within the recommended daily limits, when compared to individuals that only consume alcohol occasionally or not at all. 

Substance Use Disorder

Statistics

Approximately 86% of American adults reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lives, making alcohol one of the most commonly used and abused psychoactive substances available. In 2018, alcohol use disorder, or impaired ability to control alcohol intake despite negative consequences, affected over 14 million adults in the United States. Alcohol use disorder is usually associated with psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mood disorders (4).

COVID-19

The social distancing measures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have had unintended consequences in our society. Once such consequence is an increase in alcohol consumption that may be felt for a generation. Emerging studies have shown that due to psychological distress and perceived threat from the virus, between one-fifth and one-quarter of adults have increased the amount of alcohol they usually consume. Subjects reported alcohol offered a temporary relief from emotions, such as anxiety and depression from the lockdown (5).

Creating Change

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Stress Management

Effective stress management may be one of the most important steps to take in reducing the desire to relieve stress or anxiety with an alcoholic beverage. As stated, alcohol is a depressant, so even though an individual may be looking to “take the edge off” with alcohol, if this becomes a habit, you could end up making yourself feel worse. Unmanaged stress leads to a myriad of health issues, which are discussed in depth in this post, Stress Belly 101. 

Stress reduction is achieved through various methods, including exercise, meditation, and talking to a friend or counselor. When necessary, it may be helpful to take *supplements that are created to specifically reduce stress, tension, and anxiety. 

Mocktails 

In a recent blog post, Registered Dietitian Su-Nui Escobar, explains the Sober Curious Movement, in which the goal is to improve your health, rather than just become sober. With sober curiosity, one becomes more mindful of how, when and why they are drinking and how sustaining may improve their physical and financial health. Escobar lists “mocktail” recipes as non-alcoholic drink substitutes with flair. A personal favorite of mine is a simple glass of high quality kombucha, which also has gut health benefits. 

Conclusion

Whether your goal is to find a simple answer to the question “Is alcohol a depressant or stimulant?”, gain motivation to cut back on consuming alcohol or to quit all together, the challenge here is not lost on me. I truly enjoy the relaxation of a nice, quality red blend or a crisp, chilled white wine, as well as a frosty beverage on the beach. Not to mention mimosas, a personal favorite, with just a splash of orange juice.  Cheers to a new perspective and informed decisions on your alcohol intake! 

The purpose of this information is to inform and empower the reader to make positive lifestyle changes. The intent is not to replace medical advice or instructions given by your doctor or healthcare provider.

*Items marked with an asterisk are affiliate links. If you purchase through this link, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you*

References

  1. Becker HC. Influence of stress associated with chronic alcohol exposure on drinking. Neuropharmacology. 2017 Aug 1;122:115-126. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2017.04.028. Epub 2017 Apr 19. PMID: 28431971; PMCID: PMC5497303.
  2. He S, Hasler BP, Chakravorty S. Alcohol and sleep-related problems. Curr Opin Psychol. 2019 Dec;30:117-122. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.03.007. Epub 2019 Apr 19. PMID: 31128400; PMCID: PMC6801009.
  3. Chakravorty S, Chaudhary NS, Brower KJ. Alcohol Dependence and Its Relationship With Insomnia and Other Sleep Disorders. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2016 Nov;40(11):2271-2282. doi: 10.1111/acer.13217. Epub 2016 Oct 5. PMID: 27706838; PMCID: PMC7486899.
  4. Chvilicek MM, Titos I, Rothenfluh A. The Neurotransmitters Involved in Drosophila Alcohol-Induced Behaviors. Front Behav Neurosci. 2020 Dec 15;14:607700. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2020.607700. PMID: 33384590; PMCID: PMC7770116.
  5. Jacob L, Smith L, Armstrong NC, Yakkundi A, Barnett Y, Butler L, McDermott DT, Koyanagi A, Shin JI, Meyer J, Firth J, Remes O, López-Sánchez GF, Tully MA. Alcohol use and mental health during COVID-19 lockdown: A cross-sectional study in a sample of UK adults. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2021 Feb 1;219:108488. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.108488. Epub 2020 Dec 28. PMID: 33383352; PMCID: PMC7768217.

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