Is Alcohol a Stimulant or a Depressant?

Table of Contents


Although alcohol is a depressant, it can also induce mild stimulant effects. When you consume small quantities of alcohol, this can boost energy levels and heart rate, while at the same time decreasing inhibitions.

If you consume larger amounts of alcohol, this slows your body downs as the depressant effects of alcohol manifest.

We want to help

Let’s setup a call and figure out the best treatment options for you or your loved one. Our detox specialists will get back to you immediately.

What Are Stimulants and Depressants? 

Alcohol impacts both brain function and the CNS (central nervous system). Depressants and stimulants both trigger these effects, but in different ways. 

A stimulant is a substance that increases activity in the CNS. This causes you to feel more alert and more energetic. 

Examples of stimulants include cocaine, caffeine, and amphetamine (found in meth and in prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin. 

Common stimulant side effects include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Raised blood pressure levels
  • Jitteriness
  • Talkativeness
  • Boosted mood

Stimulants are informally known as uppers. 

Depressants, otherwise known as downers, are substances that slow activity in the CNS. Taking these substances will cause you to feel sleepy and more relaxed. Depressants can deliver sedative effects in higher doses. 

Common depressant side effects include: 

  • Low blood pressure
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Feelings of relaxation
  • Drowsiness

Examples of depressants include: 

Alcohol is found in an additional bisecting category. Some drugs like alcohol are classified as depressants or stimulants, but capable of producing the effects of both.

Is alcohol a stimulant, then? 

Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

Alcohol is a CNS depressant due to the way it slows overall brain functioning and neural activity. This occurs because alcohol intensifies the effects of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA is a chemical messenger (neurotransmitter). Alcohol’s mechanism of action triggers feelings of relaxation, leading to many people using alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety. 

The side effects of alcohol are similar to those induced by other depressants, such as: 

  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired decision making
  • Altered perceptions
  • Loss of coordination
  • Memory loss
  • Impaired judgment

If you drink too much alcohol, this can depress the central nervous system to the extent of alcohol poisoning, respiratory failure, coma, and death. 

In addition to enhancing the effects of GABA in the brain, heavy drinking can affect glutamate and dopamine, also neurotransmitters. Dopamine and glutamate play a role in pleasure and reward, as well as in memory, decision making, and overall brain function. He sustained abuse of alcohol causes permanent changes to these chemical messengers in the brain. 

What Are the Stimulant Effects of Alcohol?

When you drink small quantities of alcohol, this signals the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with positive mood and pleasure. This can make you feel energized and stimulated. 

Beyond this, alcohol causes your heart rate to increase. In some cases, consuming alcohol also increases aggression. Both of these effects are also typical of stimulants. 

The stimulant effects of alcohol present when BAC (blood alcohol concentration) levels near 0.05 mg per liter. When BAC levels reach 0.08 mg per liter, the stimulant effects are replaced by depressant effects. 0.08 mg per liter is the level that signifies you are legally impaired to drive in most of the United States. 

There are many variables that influence the effects of alcohol. These include: 

  • Amount of alcohol consumed
  • Tolerance
  • Weight
  • Gender
  • Body chemistry

So, while alcohol induces some stimulant effects — especially in lower doses — it is primarily a depressant substance and classified clinically as a psychotropic CNS depressant. Psychotropic drugs alter your mental state. 

An image of alcohol in the debate of whether or not alcohol is a simulant or a depressant

What Are the Depressant Effects of Alcohol?

Following these initial stimulant side effects, alcohol then slows the central system, decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and mental clarity. 

If you consume large amounts of alcohol, this can cause: 

  • Slowed reaction times
  • Sleepiness
  • Disorientation
  • Sedation

Higher doses of alcohol can also suppress the production of dopamine, making you feel listless or sad. 

Alcohol poisoning (alcohol overdose) can be fatal if untreated. 

Does Abusing Alcohol Cause Depression?

Although alcohol is classified as a depressant, this does not mean it causes depression. The classification designated the depressant effects it induces on the central nervous system. 

That said, alcoholism and depression are closely intertwined. Depression increases the risk of substance abuse and alcohol abuse, especially when untreated. Many people self-medicate the symptoms of mental health conditions like depression. Self-medicating does nothing to address the issue, inflames symptoms over time, and introduces a new problem in the form of alcohol abuse. 

Some evidence suggests that heavy drinking can: 

  • Alter the brain
  • Impair production of neurotransmitters
  • Trigger the development of depression
  • Cause severe chest pain

When alcoholism and depression present simultaneously, this is known as dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. The most effective dual diagnosis treatment offers coordinated and integrated treatment of both conditions.

A view from California Detox, where alcohol detox treatments are available

Alcohol Rehab at California Detox

If you need to address alcohol use disorder, you can engage with a variety of treatment programs at California Detox at the following levels of intensity: 

  • Medical detox
  • Inpatient programs (residential rehab)
  • IOPs (intensive outpatient programs)
  • Virtual IOPs (remote rehab)
  • PHPs (partial hospitalization programs)
  • OPs (outpatient programs)
  • Dual diagnosis (for co-occurring addictions and mental health disorders)

Those liable to develop severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms would benefit from a supervised alcohol detox. This will mitigate the likelihood of DTs (delirium tremens) developing. DTs is potentially life-threatening if it presents outside a medical setting. 

All California Detox treatment programs offer you access to both evidence-based and holistic therapies for a whole-body approach to recovery from alcoholism. Your treatment team will personalize a treatment plan from these interventions: 

  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Psychotherapy (talk therapies such as CBT and DBT)
  • Group therapy
  • Individual counseling
  • Family therapy
  • Holistic therapy

To start reclaiming your life from alcohol abuse, call admissions at 844.427.6002 for immediate assistance.


Alcohol is classified as a CNS depressant.
Consuming small amounts of alcohol can produce stimulant effects, including euphoria, increased confidence, and talkativeness.


Request a Call