Is Alcohol A Depressant?
Author: Amber Biello-Taylor, CAP, LCSW
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Definition Of Depressants
A depressant is a category of drugs that decelerates the central nervous system, causing brain activity, heart rate, and breathing to decline. Alcohol is considered a depressant, along with Benzodiazepines, Barbiturates, and Opioids.
Some name brands of medications that are depressants include Xanax, Pentobarbital, and Percocet. These substances are often used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures, but they are highly addictive, and abuse of these drugs can lead to overdose.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that impedes nerve cell activity in the brain, escalates with the use of depressants. This hindrance of nerve cell activity produces a calming and relaxing effect on the body, reducing feelings of anxiety and tension. However, dangerous side effects may occur when using these substances with other drugs or alcohol.
How Alcohol Slows Down The Body
When alcohol is consumed, it affects the central nervous system which includes the brain and spinal cord. Alcohol rapidly enters the bloodstream through the stomach and the small intestine, and then circulates throughout the body and ultimately into the brain, where it increases the activity of GABA.
GABA inhibits nerve cell activity in the brain, producing a calming effect and reducing anxiety and tension. Simultaneously, alcohol also decreases the activity of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. The decrease in glutamate depresses brain activity further and promotes even more of the sedative effect.
Alcohol As A Depressant
Alcohol is known to stimulate the human body when used in lower doses; however, it ultimately depresses the body’s central nervous system, slowing down brain activity. Alcohol can negatively impact an individual’s cognition, judgment, and motor coordination and can also reduce feelings of anxiety and inhibition.
People who abuse alcohol are at an increased risk for accidents and injuries. At higher doses, alcohol can sedate the body and cause respiratory depression, decreased heart rate, coma, or death.
Below are more specifics on the effects of alcohol as a depressant:
- Impaired cognitive function: Alcohol can affect cognitive function. It can impair memory, attention, and judgment. It does so by decreasing brain activity.
- Decreased inhibitions: Alcohol lowers inhibitions, causing a person to behave in a way they may not act when sober. This includes behaviors such as risky sexual behavior, aggression, or impaired driving.
- Motor impairment: Alcohol can cause a lack of coordination and balance, leading to difficulty with simple tasks such as walking or driving.
- Sedation: Alcohol decreases brain activity which may cause drowsiness and sedation.
- Memory impairment: Some people describe this effect as having “blackouts.” Blackouts are dangerous because people can do things like drive an automobile and not remember doing it.
- Relaxation: Alcohol can cause a person to feel relaxed and calm by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which impedes the movement of nerve cells in the brain.
- Respiratory depression: In higher doses, alcohol can lead to respiratory depression, resulting in slow or shallow breathing and, in turn, can potentially cause coma or even death.
- Increased risk of accidents and injuries: Alcohol can hinder cognitive and motor function, increasing the potential for accidents and injuries.
- Addiction: Chronic use of alcohol can lead to physical dependence and addiction.
The effects that alcohol has on an individual may vary depending on the amount of alcohol one consumes, the duration of alcohol use, and individual factors such as age, weight, and gender.
Other factors, such as tolerance and drug interactions, may also influence how someone is affected by alcohol. It is always recommended to avoid mixing alcohol with other depressants or prescription medications.
Risks Of Using Alcohol With Other Depressants
Using alcohol with other depressants can increase the risk of dangerous reactions, such as respiratory depression, coma, or death. Depressants such as Benzodiazepines, Barbiturates, and Opioids can heighten the effects of alcohol. This exaggerated response can cause significant depression in the central nervous system. Some of the risks that may occur when combining alcohol and other depressants include:
- Respiratory depression
- Impaired cognitive function
- Increased risk of accidents
It is essential to understand the risks connected to combining alcohol and other depressants. If you are taking prescription medications or other drugs, it is vital to speak to your healthcare provider about the risks of using prescribed medication with alcohol.
Treatment For Alcohol And Other Depressants
Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as delirium tremens, can be hazardous and even fatal. These symptoms usually occur 48-72 hours after the last drink of alcohol and may include seizures, confusion, high fever, rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking, agitation, anxiety, hallucinations, and delirium.
If you believe someone is experiencing delirium tremens, call for emergency medical care immediately. Furthermore, if you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol abuse or dependence, contact a treatment provider today to discover what support is available to you.
Author: Amber Biello-Taylor, CAP, LCSW | Last Edited: June 23, 2023