Clinically Reviewed by Linda Whiteside, LPCC

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson, MD

Is Alcohol a Depressant? Understanding Its Effects on the Mind and Body

Table of Contents

Alcohol is a psychotropic depressant that slows down the neural activity in the central nervous system. As a result, it diminishes a person’s capacity for rational thought, lowers inhibitions, and affects judgment. 

This article will discuss why alcohol is a depressant and how it can affect your mind and body.

Alcohol is a substance with dependence-producing qualities that has been widely utilized in various cultures for centuries. Its harmful use results in a high risk for diseases and significant social and economic repercussions. Meanwhile, a central nervous system depressant is a substance that slows down brain function. CNS depressants prevent the brain from receiving messages from the nerve receptors.

The effects of alcohol range from stimulating to sedating. However, its effects vary depending on the amount consumed and the person’s tolerance. Initially, alcohol has stimulant effects, making drinkers feel more relaxed and confident. As the person drinks more, they will start to feel the sedative effects. Alcohol may initially have some stimulating effects, but it is medically classified as a depressant since it reduces the central nervous system’s activity in the long run.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain (CNS)

The entire body absorbs alcohol, but it has the greatest effect on the brain. The brain is a complex organ that relies on a balance of chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Alcohol’s primary effect is to disrupt this balance and trigger the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which produces sedative effects. Consuming alcohol also causes an increase in dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of euphoria or pleasurable feelings. It is believed that dopamine effects play a significant role in alcohol craving and relapse.

As people drink alcohol, the substance disrupts the brain’s communication pathways and changes the way the brain processes information. It causes short-term and long-term effects that affect physical and mental health.

Depending on the amount consumed and the individual’s physical state, alcohol can cause the following short-term effects:

Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use are linked to a variety of long-term effects, including:

Alcohol tells the brain to release dopamine and endorphins. These substances not only alleviate pain in the body but also increase feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Moreover, people respond to alcohol differently because of genetic variations. Some people’s brains release more pleasure chemicals when they drink alcohol, which increases the risk of physical dependence.

What makes alcohol so addictive is how it changes the brain’s structure and chemistry. When the brain’s pleasure and reward circuits are overloaded, cravings for such sensations might arise. Even if someone wants to quit drinking, alcohol’s effects on impulse control and decision-making make it more likely that they will relapse. Addiction to alcohol can begin and progress rapidly to alcohol use disorder.

Do you want to get over your alcohol addiction? Contact us or call us at (323) 307-7997 for more information.

How Depressants Affect the Mind and Body

It is important to note that practically all depressants can cause addiction and should be used cautiously under medical supervision. Regardless of their specific mechanism of action, all CNS depressants can slow down the transmission of information between the brain and the body. They can impair a person’s focus, coordination, and responsiveness to unexpected situations. Commonly used CNS depressants include alcohol, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, opioids, and sleeping aids. These prescription medications are used for anxiety, panic, and sleep disorders.

It is highly dangerous to combine alcohol with CNS depressant medications, such as Xanax and Valium. Doing so will intensify the depressant effects and increase the risk of adverse effects and overdose. Depressants slow brain activity and may severely impair neurological regions controlling vital processes like breathing and heart rate.

Side Effects of Alcohol and Other Depressants

In the United States, excessive alcohol use is a primary preventable cause of death, cutting people’s lives short by an estimated 26 years. Excessive alcohol use includes:

  • Binge drinking- characterized as having four or more drinks on one occasion for women, and five or more for men
  • Heavy drinking- characterized as consuming eight drinks or more per week for women and fifteen or more drinks per week for men
  • Use of alcoholic beverages by those under the age of 21 or by pregnant women.

Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol can cause a variety of chronic diseases and other major health conditions, including alcohol use disorder and problems with learning, memory, and overall mental health. In addition to these health issues, excessive alcohol use has been associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and liver disease.

Excessive alcohol use also raises the likelihood of negative effects, such as injuries, violence, poisonings, risky behaviors, addiction to other drugs, unprotected sex, and sexually transmitted infections.

In addition, alcohol poisoning can occur if too much alcohol is consumed than what the body can metabolize in a given amount of time. It can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention at a hospital.

Moreover, when someone develops an addiction, it can significantly strain all their relationships—family, friendships, and romantic ones. You can benefit from outpatient counseling if you’re having trouble in your relationships.

The most common depressants pose a risk, including dependency, overdose, withdrawal symptoms when ending their use, and long-term negative consequences. Sometimes, people may be unaware that they are in danger of an overdose, such as when they take prescription drugs and subsequently consume alcohol. An overdose occurs when an individual takes excessive amounts of depressants that cause life-threatening problems or even death. Symptoms of depressant overdose include:

  • Slow, irregular breathing or cessation of breathing (respiratory failure)
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Extreme confusion or memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor judgment
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Sudden and intense mood swings
  • Slow reflexes and delayed reaction time
  • Clammy or cold skin
  • Blue lips or fingertips

Treatment for depressant overdose can vary depending on the substance. There are antidotes available for some depressants. Overdoses of opiates can be reversed using Naloxone, and those of benzodiazepines can be treated with Flumazenil.

Individuals who have developed an addiction to prescription medications such as depressants and abruptly discontinue using them may experience withdrawal. Withdrawal effects may manifest a few hours after the last dose:

  • Increased blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature with sweating
  • Shakiness
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Overactive reflexes
  • Insomnia
  • Severe alcohol cravings

Anyone on CNS depressants prescribed by a doctor should not attempt to discontinue use on their own. The withdrawal symptoms from these substances can be quite dangerous, even fatal in some cases. Contact a healthcare provider or emergency services if symptoms of withdrawal and overdose occur.

Alcohol and Mood Disorders

Alcohol consumption can contribute to the onset and persistence of mental health problems. Individuals who already have or are at risk for a mental health condition are more prone to consume alcohol, which may exacerbate their symptoms.

Combining a mood disorder, such as bipolar disorder, with an alcohol use disorder can be extremely harmful. The signs and symptoms of one can amplify those of the other. For example, if a person is already depressed, drinking alcohol may make him feel sadder; if he has manic symptoms, he may become even more hostile, euphoric, or irritated when drunk.

Having co-occurring disorders raises the likelihood of depression, anxiety, mood swings, violence, and suicide. Mental health professionals trained to manage both disorders may be needed for treatment. They may prescribe medications that reduce alcohol cravings and provide comprehensive treatment, taking into account their mental, emotional, and physical health while also addressing the interactions between co-occurring disorders.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol use disorder, NuView Treatment Center can help. Contact us at (323) 307-7997 for more information.

Finding Treatment for Alcohol and Depressants

Alcoholism is a serious problem that affects a large percentage of the population. According to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1 in 10 American children has a parent with a drinking problem. Additionally, more than 14 million people aged 18 and up suffer from alcohol use disorder. However, most persons with alcohol use disorder can improve with treatment, no matter how serious the presenting symptoms may seem.

Health practitioners can determine which treatment is most successful for each individual. While deciding on a course of therapy for alcohol or drug abuse, it is important to consider whether inpatient treatment (requiring a stay at treatment facilities) or outpatient treatment (attending therapy while residing in own home) works best.

Because of the many benefits of outpatient programs, such as allowing individuals to return home each night, their popularity has skyrocketed over the past few decades. Among the benefits of outpatient alcohol treatment are the following:

  • More affordable than traditional, inpatient treatment
  • Balance among work, home, and rehab
  • Uninterrupted focus on daily priorities
  • Close to home and one’s support system
  • Participate in group therapy with a support system
  • Having the chance to put one’s knowledge into practice

At NuView Treatment Center, our outpatient treatment programs for substance abuse and co-occurring mental illness are comprehensive and holistic. We utilize treatment methods to enhance an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. We have a variety of outpatient treatment options, each providing a unique level of care and assistance:

  • In intensive outpatient programs (IOP), individuals can live at home or in a sober living facility while attending treatment for three to five days per week. In most cases, intensive outpatient programs begin with a period of alcohol detoxification. Intensive outpatient programs include a variety of addiction treatment strategies, including individual and group therapy.
  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHP), the most intensive type of outpatient care, comprises patients living at home or in a sober living house while attending treatment for most of the day, every day of the week. This type of outpatient treatment is highly structured and useful for people who need intensive care but cannot commit to an inpatient stay. In general, these programs are recommended for persons who are unable to function due to drug or alcohol dependence, those who have just finished a medical detox or inpatient treatment program, and those who relapse frequently. Programs at PHPs include relapse prevention and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
  • Outpatient mental health treatment is accessible and depends on a specific plan that the clinician and individual develop together. Treatment options could range from traditional therapy to psychiatric services and medication management. At NuView treatment center, our outpatient mental health treatment is at the forefront of treating a wide range of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, stress, bipolar disorder, and drug and alcohol addiction.

With outpatient treatment, people can stay home, keep their jobs, and participate in regular therapy sessions. Outpatient treatment has many advantages, including better quality of life and lower costs. Each individual’s treatment plan is tailored to their specific situation and severity of alcohol addiction or substance abuse.

Don’t allow alcohol to ruin your relationships, health, and anything else that matters to you. We will help you and your loved ones determine the most suitable course of action going forward. Start rebuilding your life, and contact us today.

Frequently Asked Questions

Peer-reviewed studies show that there is a link between alcohol and depression. More than one of every three alcoholics has had severe bouts of depression or anxiety. The larger the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption, the greater the likelihood that a person would suffer anxiety and depression. When the alcohol intake increases, these symptoms are likely to worsen.
Yes. Alcohol is a CNS depressant that causes various behavioral and physiological changes due to its psychotropic properties. A psychotropic substance affects the brain and affects mood, thoughts, or behavior.
Alcohol is classified as a depressant since it slows down the central nervous system. It reduces brain activity by releasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, which in turn causes slurred speech, coordination issues, slower reaction times, and drowsiness.
Alcohol affects the central nervous system by releasing the neurotransmitter GABA, which impairs one's ability to think, speak, and move quickly. It also affects the frontal lobe, making it difficult for a person to regulate their impulses and emotions. People abusing alcohol may also act irrationally or violently. When alcohol enters the hippocampus, the individual may have problems recalling recent information.
There is a widespread misconception that the popular party drink tequila has the opposite effect of depressants. Some claim it has the same effect as common stimulants because drinkers experience increased energy and self-esteem. However, medical experts say all alcoholic beverages are depressants, including tequila. While tequila may appear to have a strong effect on boosting one's mood and energy, this is more than likely because it is quickly consumed in shot glasses.
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  1. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2022, July 11). Excessive Alcohol Use.
  2. NIDA. 2018, March 6. Prescription CNS Depressants DrugFacts. Retrieved from on 2023, April 5
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2022). Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.
  4. Schuckit M. A. (1996). Alcohol, Anxiety, and Depressive Disorders. Alcohol health and research world, 20(2), 81–85.

Clinically Reviewed by Linda Whiteside, LPCC

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson, MD

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Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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