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  • Given its widespread use and acceptance, it’s easy to forget that alcohol is a drug. More specifically, ethanol is considered a CNS (central nervous system) depressant with psychoactive, stimulant, sedative, and toxic properties.

    What Is A Central Nervous System Depressant?

    CNS depressant drugs do not cause people to become depressed when they take them.

    Instead, these drugs depress or reduce neurotransmitter activity in the brain, lowering physiological arousal and stimulation. 

    Colloquially known as downers, CNS depressants are used to calm overactive minds and bodies or generate feelings of relaxation, as with a glass of wine after a long day.

    How Alcohol Functions As A Depressant

    After an alcoholic beverage is consumed, the ethanol inside is absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and small intestine. 

    From there it travels to the brain and increases the activity of GABA-A receptors (structures in the brain that reduce mental and physical activity when the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid is present) and inhibits the activity of the neurotransmitter glutamate (which increases mental and physical activity).

    This CNS depression causes many of the well-known effects of alcohol inebriation, including:

    • slurred speech
    • impaired coordination
    • slow reaction time
    • impaired cognition
    • impaired perception
    • low blood pressure

    Other CNS Depressants

    The four main types of CNS depressants are:

    • alcohol
    • barbiturates
    • benzodiazepines
    • opioids

    Side Effects Of Alcohol When Mixed With Other Depressants

    When alcohol is mixed with other depressants there is an increased risk of dangerous CNS depression from overdose/alcohol poisoning. 

    This can cause symptoms that may include: 

    • memory loss (blacking out)
    • pinpoint pupils
    • inability to feel pain
    • cold or bluish skin
    • impaired gag reflex
    • labored breathing that may develop into respiratory failure

    These effects can be fatal.

    How Alcohol Functions As A Stimulant

    Confusingly, alcohol also has certain stimulant effects, especially within the first ninety minutes of drinking or when a large amount of alcohol is consumed quickly.

    In either case, these stimulant effects are caused by dopamine, a neurotransmitter relating to pleasure and habit formation. 

    If enough alcohol is consumed it can trigger a dopamine release, with the level of release depending on a person’s attitude, expectations, and any mental associations they’ve built up between drinking and excitement or recreation.

    This can lead to stimulant effects including:

    • euphoria
    • talkativeness
    • increased confidence
    • decreased inhibition, potentially resulting in aggressive, sexual, or risk-taking behavior
    • increased heart rate

    Other CNS Stimulants

    Other CNS stimulants include:

    • caffeine
    • amphetamine
    • methamphetamine
    • cocaine
    • and others

    Alcohol Abuse

    Different people drink alcohol for different reasons ranging from habit to self-medication, social lubricant, alcohol addiction, and more.

    Episodic drinkers may engage in binge drinking to enjoy the stimulant effects of alcohol (often for social reasons). 

    Heavy drinkers drink more over a longer period of time to likely maintain the depressant effects of alcohol consumption and avoid withdrawal symptoms that develop along with alcohol dependence (often drinking alone). 

    Although alcohol abuse is common, professional substance abuse treatment programs offer you the resources you need to quit drinking. To learn about enrolling in our treatment centers for yourself or a loved one, please contact us today.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Alcohol Questions and Answers
    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Alcohol's Effects on the Body
    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Harmful Interactions

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on August 15, 2022
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