Alcohol has been used by the majority of Americans at least once, and it’s the most commonly misused substance in the United States. Although people have used alcohol for almost as long as there have been people, we don’t know everything about what it does in the brain. Chemical substances are often grouped into broad categories based on how they work and what they feel like. Alcohol is often called a depressant, but some people feel like it causes excitement like a stimulant.
What category is alcohol in, and do its effects depend on the dose you take?
What Are Depressants and Stimulants?
Psychoactive stimulants can come in many categories. Two of those categories are stimulants and depressants, which are sometimes referred to as uppers and downers. The term stimulant is short for central nervous system stimulant. They influence your brain by increasing activity in your nervous system.
Drugs like amphetamines, cocaine, and caffeine are known to have stimulating effects on the brain. They work in various ways, but they often increase the presence of natural chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. These important chemical messengers are tied to reward, energy levels, and happy feelings.
A drug like cocaine achieves elevated levels of dopamine by blocking a process called reuptake. Dopamine reuptake is a process of removing dopamine from your synapse, where it floats around, binding to receptors and having its effect. Your nerve cells are designed to reabsorb the chemicals it sends to avoid excessive binding. Blocking the process of reuptake causes a buildup of dopamine, causing a more intense stimulating effect. Stimulants typically do something like this process as their primary action.
Stimulants tend to cause effects like increased energy, confidence, wakefulness, excitement, and increased motivation. Very potent stimulants like cocaine can cause a sense of increased power, euphoria, anxiety, and agitation.
Depressants are the opposite of stimulants in many ways. Central nervous system stimulants work to slow down activity in the brain. Drugs like benzodiazepines do this by being GABAergic or influencing a brain chemical called gamma- Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is closely tied to sleep, relaxation, and anti-anxiety, which is why medications that interact with it are often used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.
Depressants often cause a sedated feeling, relaxation, and a release of anxieties. They may also cause a loss of inhibitions, impaired judgment, and impaired reflexes.
What Is Alcohol?
Sometimes psychoactive substances defy neat categorization. The reality is that the brain is complex, and psychoactive chemicals can have more than just one effect on the brain. That being said, alcohol is generally considered to be a depressant. It works very similarly to other depressants like benzodiazepines and barbiturates. What we call alcohol is actually a chemical called ethanol that is just one type of alcohol.
Ethanol has been used by humans for thousands of years. Since it can be produced naturally, it’s thought that humans developed the ability to process this one particular type of alcohol so that we could eat fruit that had fallen to the ground and began to ferment. Since then, people have developed alongside alcohol, and we don’t fully understand everything it does in our brains and bodies when we drink it.
However, we do know that it binds to GABA receptors like other depressants. It binds to a site that’s different from the site GABA uses. Once it’s there, it increases the effectiveness of naturally occurring GABA, so its normal relaxing effects are intensified. Because it increases the power of GABA, alcohol can cause your mind and body to relax. This can come with a euphoric mental and bodily comfort that makes alcohol appealing.
Alcohol also lowers inhibitions that might cause anxiety, indecision, or aversion to certain things and activities. That’s what makes it a popular social lubricant. If you’re unlikely to boldly strike up conversations or dance at parties, you might find it easy after a drink or two. However, alcohol’s effects come with downsides. It can cause depression, sleepiness, poor decision-making, and impaired motor function. These side effects are also a result of its depressing effects on the nervous system.
After very heavy drinking, you may start to experience the effects of an alcohol overdose. Alcohol can start to suppress your nervous system’s essential functions, including your breathing. Your heart rate will slow down, and your body temperature may drop. In this case, alcohol’s nature as a depressant can be life-threatening, along with other toxic effects of high doses of ethanol.
Why Does Alcohol Make Me Feel Stimulated?
If alcohol is a depressant, why is it known to lift people’s mood, and why is it often at the center of wild college parties? That sounds like the work of a stimulant. Although alcohol primarily works on the GABA receptor to create sedating and relaxing effects, it has also been shown to work in other ways in the brain. It can also elevate serotonin and dopamine levels, giving you a mood and energy boost, especially while drinking.
Some drugs have different effects that depend on the size of the dose. Alcohol has some dose-dependent effects. Experienced drinkers know these dose dependents by names like buzz, drunk, hammered, and others. But the timeline you’re on when you’re drinking may also have some significant effects.
As your blood-alcohol concentration level (BAC) rises, alcohol can act as a stimulant. Rising BAC happens while you’re actively drinking and up until the moment alcohol starts to be filtered out of your blood and eliminated. The effects on rising dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine can cause excitement, elevated mood, and increased energy.
As your BAC starts to fall, you may feel fatigued, depressed, relaxed, or restless. In some cases, the sedating effects of a falling BAC are what encourages people to keep drinking so they can maintain their elevated mood. This can lead to binge drinking, which elevates your risk of uncomfortable side effects, overdose, and alcohol use problems.
What Is Rebounding?
Alcohol can also cause stimulating effects during withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal happens when you quit drinking after a period of chemical dependence on alcohol. Dependence is when your brain adapts to a steady supply of alcohol by changing its brain chemistry to achieve balance. Since alcohol is a depressant, your brain may produce fewer of its own inhibitory effects and more stimulating ones to counteract the effects of alcohol. Rebounding is when withdrawal causes effects that are the opposite of a drug’s effects.
When it comes to alcohol, that means overstimulation like insomnia, anxiety, tremors, sweating, and sometimes seizures. The depressing effects of alcohol are removed, and you feel uncomfortable stimulation until your brain chemistry returns to normal.
Depressants can actually be dangerous during withdrawal, causing a condition called delirium tremens (DTs), which is the sudden onset of extreme panic, confusion, heart palpitations, chest pains, and an impending sense of doom.