Is Alcohol a Stimulant?

closeup of man at bar with glass of whiskey and mostly empty bottle in hand

Of all the research you could find on the internet about alcohol, not one of them is an easy-to-read or comprehensible piece of literature. If you want to learn what part of our brain is responsible for alcohol use and alcohol abuse, and addiction to illicit and prescription drugs, you should continue your read.

Situated in the prefrontal cortex is the housing of the nucleus accumbens that sits right on top of your nose in the basal forebrain. The nucleus accumbens is thought to modulate your feelings and your motivation. Plus the nucleus accumbens (NAc) is also a mediator of the effects of psychoactive drugs. It has also been associated with mental health disorders like depression and anxiety and a few others.

However, the nucleus accumbens is also understood to be directly and indirectly related to complex alcohol and drug addiction. The nucleus accumbens is revered as a vital player within the “reward center” of the brain. You ought to know that when a person delights in activities like eating, having sex and doing drugs, or drinking alcohol (which alcohol is a drug), the “feel-good receptors” called dopamine neurons are activated. Not only are the dopamine neurons released from the nucleus accumbens, but also from the whole ventral tegmental area, creating a literal flood of dopamine when these activities are accomplished and repeated. Hence, the propensity for food addiction, sex addiction, and of course drug addiction, because each of these is greatly rewarded within the brain.

Therein lies the scientific answer to the age-old debate of whether addiction is a choice. But we now need to settle the inquiry of whether alcohol is a stimulant, you’re never going to guess the answer, so go ahead and read on.

people cheering each other with champagne and wine

Alcohol a Stimulant?

We just learned about why we like to drink alcohol, scientifically speaking, but more than 80% of Americans have partaken in a drink in their adult life. Whether you are invited to a wedding or graduation or it’s a night at home with good home cooking and that white Zin, drinking alcohol regularly has become commonplace and even expected. Give or take, some 6% of Americans are self-professed alcoholics. While it’s become more socially accepted, the behaviors of an intoxicated person are not always so justifiable. Alcohol does act as a stimulant acutely. While drinking alcohol, you may feel like you are invincible or “ten-feet tall, and bullet-proof” as the saying goes. You may be more excitable and even more easily agitated and lose all inhibitions and good judgment. These are all the signs that you’re not only drunk but that the alcohol is having a stimulating effect on your brain and body. So, what is a stimulant then?

What Is a Stimulant?

Stimulants are any type of drug that increases activity in your body, usually affecting the brain and central nervous system. For stimulants, it is known that the neurons are rapidly sending motor signals to the brain and the body. Typically, a stimulant will affect your body by raising your body temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rate and will decrease your appetite and inhibitions.

Examples of a Stimulant

Some examples of stimulants are

  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamines
  • Adderall, Ritalin, and other prescription stimulating drugs
  • Alcohol

If you’re totally confused about the whole idea of alcohol being a stimulant, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. It’s not widely known that alcohol is a depressant and a stimulant. So in every book, you’d still be right in you’re thinking. Alcohol is absolutely both a stimulant and a depressant.

Three glasses of beer on a bartop

What Is a Depressant?

Okay, now we’re at a point wherein all things are more familiar for most people. Alcohol is for all intents and purposes, a depressant. However, the term “depressant” may seem to be a misnomer, but the reason why alcohol is referred to as a depressant is that it depresses your nervous system, not because it causes feelings of depression (which it certainly can). So a depressant is called that because it slows your messaging service by way of neurons going from the body to the brain. Simple enough, right? Well, that is a simple explanation, but the effects aren’t so.

The Acute Effects of Depressants

The effects typically experienced are a euphoric feeling like life is beautiful. And then, there are things like poor balance and dizziness, in a way that it’s like the world is spinning. You’ll also experience what causes the worst driving collisions caused by slowed reflexes. Not only that, but the person under the influence of alcohol and other drugs will have poor judgment, blurred vision, an altered perception of people, confusion, and altered perceptions of life in general.

Examples of Depressants

Let’s see what qualifies as a depressant officially then, shall we?

  • Alcohol (of course)
  • Opiates like heroin and methadone and prescription pain medications
  • Cannabis
  • MDMA and ecstasy
  • Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Atavan, or other anxiety medications
  • Prescription sleeping aids like Ambien
  • Muscle relaxants like Flexeril

The Real Danger: Thinking Alcohol Isn’t Dangerous

As you can see the drugs on this list are seemingly more dangerous than alcohol, which is not true. Alcohol is a longstanding dangerous drug all on its own. It’s especially dangerous to abuse any of these depressants while drinking alcohol, as the abuse of them is positively going to induce labored breathing and even a cessation of respiration. Also, if you abuse these drugs, you will inevitably go into withdrawals that can induce seizures and the feeling like your vital signs should be all over the place when in fact they typically aren’t. If you ever feel that you’re in withdrawal from benzodiazepines or alcohol, you must go to the nearest emergency care facility to monitor your vital signs and administer anti-seizure medications to potentially save your life. As for opiates, taking too much will inevitably lead to dependency and very likely an overdose that can kill you by stopping your respiratory response. So the most accepted drug in the world is still a drug and very dangerous when in situations like binge drinking and excessive alcohol intake.

What Exactly Is Alcohol?

By now we’ve learned the scientific reason why we as a country enjoy alcohol and how much is too much. But what is alcohol classified as? Do you think alcohol is a stand-alone substance or do you think it’s a drug?

The answer is that alcohol is in fact a drug. The CDC has classified alcohol as a drug just as any other prescription or illicit drug. It is also worth it to note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), the official rule book of all mental health diagnoses, recognizes drug addiction as a mental health disorder. With all that being said, the drug alcohol will wreak havoc on your body and mental health with long-term use and/or large doses.

Four colorful cocktails on a bar

Long-term Alcohol Use

On top of the physical ailments that an alcohol use disorder can put you at grave risk for, your mental health and cognitive functioning can take a nosedive. The irony in the fact that most people begin their alcohol use because of their need to calm their anxiety or depression is evident when in longer-term use, the alcohol that’s become your wing-man of sorts can leave you with higher anxiety and worsened depression. However, these problems aren’t by far the least of your concerns. Alcohol will get you a bit further in the downward spiral to binge drinking or full-blown alcoholism and you can be plagued with an alcohol-induced psychosis

Physical Effects of Alcohol Use Disorder

The CDC puts it this way, the long-term use of alcohol as well as binge drinking will lead to problems with your digestive tract, high blood pressure, and will lead to heart disease, a hemorrhagic stroke (a brain bleed), aneurism (a deadlier brain bleed), and inflammation of the liver leading to liver disease and cirrhosis. Most of these are highly deadly, much like all the cancers that you leave yourself prone to, as alcohol is a carcinogen. The cancers that are known to be related to alcohol abuse and frequent binge drinking are breast (the fact of being a man doesn’t make you immune to this cancer by a long shot), colon-rectal, liver, esophagus, voice box, throat, and mouth.

Alcohol Use Disorder and Mental Health Affects

When you encounter a fully loaded alcohol addiction you will certainly leave yourself wide open to traumatic events that are directly related to your alcohol use disorder. When you encounter such events, the alcohol will become your coping mechanism, rather than therapy. In turn, you will struggle with trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), hypervigilance disorders, and more.

Furthermore, alcohol is solely responsible for 95,000 deaths annually, car collisions that take peoples’ lives and greatly inhibit the quality of life for the victims of the crashes. And our economy suffers a $249+ billion deficit with the losses associated with binge drinking and excessive drinking. And that’s not even counting the ones who are mixing alcohol with other drugs and causing inadvertently tragedies.

Effects of Mixing Alcohol with Other Drugs

Since the effects are different when mixing alcohol with stimulants and depressants, we’ll need to take a look at them individually. However, there are shared effects that are the same whether you’re mixing alcohol with either. Then, there are the instances wherein people are mixing alcohol with both antagonists, so we should then discuss what the risks associated with that are.

Mixing Alcohol with Stimulants

To start, when mixing alcohol with stimulant drugs, your brain is getting a bunch of mixed signals that make it hard for you to be able accurately gauge your level of intoxication. This is a common occurrence wherein a person believes that using cocaine while intoxicated will somehow make them more able to consume more alcohol. This is not true, you will think you’re able to drink more but in truth, the stimulant has confused your messenger neurons. When you have no way to know how much alcohol and stimulants you’ve consumed, the propensity of things like vomiting, choking on vomit, losing consciousness, being in violence-related crimes, alcohol poisoning, and coordination and judgment are greatly impaired.

Mixing Alcohol with Depressants

Now, when you’re mixing alcohol with other depressants like opiates or benzodiazepines, it’s very dangerous. The amount you drink and how much of the other drug you take all affect how dangerous the mix can be. When you combine depressants, your blood pressure and pulse lower, and you may experience extreme dizziness and a loss of orientation. From this, you can experience a lowered respiratory rate and you may stop breathing, resulting in a loss of brain activity or death.

glass of alcohol and bottle of pills

How to Know If It’s Addiction

The Center for Disease Control defines alcoholism as under the scope of main drinking behaviors like binge drinking, excessive drinking, underage drinking, and the consumption of alcohol while pregnant and/or breastfeeding. When binge drinking, the limit of normalcy is 4 drinks per occasion for a woman and 5 drinks for a man per occasion. Heavy drinking is defined as an excess of 8 drinks for a woman and 14 drinks for her male counterpart each week. The underaged and impregnated people are limited to zero alcoholic drinks as a healthy limit.

The Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Aside from the limitations outlined in the CDC’s guidelines, the physical and mental signs that you’ve become dependent on alcohol vary in the degree of known withdrawal symptoms and post-acute withdrawal syndrome. The experience of the withdrawal is just as extreme and painful as the next, although they vary. And, yes, withdrawal is a sure sign that you’ve got an alcohol dependency.

These signs include, but are not limited to:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations, illusions
  • Tremors
  • Severe Anxiety
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Irritability
  • Tachycardia

The withdrawal will typically start anywhere 2 hours to 4 days after the last drink of alcohol. Withdrawal may be deadly and require a stay in a hospital or detox center through the worst of it. The effect of a withdrawal lasts up to a month, but as with any drug, the discomfort can last for 6 months to a year in total.

woman drinking wine alone in kitchen, looking dejected

How to Get Help for an Alcohol Use Disorder

For short-term treatment, it is most helpful to check in to a detoxification center, or “detox”. A detox center will admit the patient and regularly take vitals and supervise symptoms closely. The nurses and LPNs are all certified in treating all kinds of addictions and know when it’s time to call 9-1-1. The center’s staff is run by a doctor that specializes in addiction treatment. If you’re pregnant, this is the time that you should go to a detox center and the doctor will know how to best assist you to ensure the viability of your fetus. After a short stay in a detox facility, you should follow up with an alcohol addiction treatment center. If you are struggling with a drug dependency and an alcohol addiction, you can still be helped by any substance abuse treatment center, but they are all trained to treat any kind of addiction. Especially if you are withdrawing from alcohol or benzodiazepines, you should never try to tough it out at home or wherever you are. Always go to a medical treatment facility like a hospital or detoxification center to get off the substances. These substances are the most dangerous when withdrawing, and seizures and death are very commonplace.

What an Addiction Treatment Center Offers

After the detoxification process, you will want to follow through the recovery process with psychological help. The best way to follow up a detox center stay would be to promptly get to a rehab center or what is called an alcohol treatment center or facility. During a stay at a drug addiction treatment center, you will be shown around, and you’ll discuss your treatment plan at length. There are a lot of therapies and group counseling wherein you’ll meet other people who are similar in your background and your backstory. Most drug addiction treatment centers are very pro- Alcoholic Anonymous so you will start your recovery off right with a few AA chips in your pocket before you graduate from the rehab program.

After the Detoxification of Alcohol

After the treatment center, you may want to linger in the safe arms of a good support system such as AA by initiating a stay at a halfway house. There are dozens of options to assist your continued sobriety, and we urge you to stick with what works for you. For the drug addict that is trying to get sober from opiates, there are amazing medicated assisted treatment (MAT) programs that you can use over the phone as long as you have an internet connection and a smartphone. These programs prescribe Suboxone and facilitate therapy sessions weekly.

Trauma Therapy: Get Recovery Right the First Time

Therapy, no matter your drug of choice, will be a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy like dialectal behavioral therapy. In dialectal behavioral therapy, there are about 22 meaningful change-inducing sessions. The premise is that it can re-write your trauma and give you better coping skills to replace the old drinking or drugging one. The 4 strategies of dialectal behavioral therapy (DBT) are:

  • Mindfulness to teach a patient that even when life gets hard to stay in the present and not in the past or future as a relapse prevention strategy.
  • Boundaries and Effective Communication follows a grasped concept of mindfulness. Whilst in future and current relationships, the patient is taught the importance of self-respect and communicating their needs to those around them to not rely on a toxic relationship or build one.
  • Self-Acceptance and Change are vital to your self-love and getting past the guilt and regrets of your drugging days to ultimately know within oneself that they are worth their new chance at life and in turn, make it great.
  • Anger Management where the patient learns to regulate their emotions like anger, frustration, self-doubt, and even elation.

Each of these skill-sets is a 6-week time frame and they may meet once a week but can do more than that depending upon the patient’s needs.

The example here is just one method. There is Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing (EMDR) for trauma. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) are more specified types of therapy other than generalized cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

Mother and daughter hugging and smiling

The Take-Away

Recovery never ends as long as you’re not back using or passed away, so it may be the best thing you can do for a loved one or yourself to find what works best for healing yourself from the inside out. The thing that is the biggest revelation for you now, is that you picked up that first drink or drug as an escape from something and it became your crutch. You have to dig deep within yourself to find what made you need to fill that void in the first place. Whether it stemmed from childhood trauma, or no one taught you how to function in the world or whether you had a predisposition for drug dependency, no matter the issue, go heal it. It will always be your reason to relapse again and again until you face the demons that have haunted your life thus far. It’s time. It’s time to shine with the glow of your FULL potential. It is common knowledge in the AA and NA society that drug addicts are some of the most enlightening, intelligent, and artistic people around. So, it’s also time that you show the people who believe in you and the ones who are waiting for the next relapse that you are a solid and amazingly resilient person, and you’re healing from the inside out. That is the key takeaway, and to never give up because you’re worth the try.

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