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Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. When alcohol is consumed it has a sedating effect on the body, causing a sense of calm and relaxation. Some of the initial effects of minimal alcohol ingestion are quite pleasant, such as feeling less inhibited or stressed in a social situation. However, as alcohol consumption increases, the sedating effects intensify, leading to slurred speech, cognitive disturbance, unsteady movements, and slowed response time.
Some might ask, “Is alcohol a depressant?” because they are confused about the use of the term depressant, thinking it refers to a mental state of depression. In other words, they mistakenly apply the word depressant incorrectly when referring to alcohol. Alcohol has depressant properties affecting neural activity and brain function, but drinking a glass of wine will not make you feel sad.
That said, someone who develops an alcohol dependency or addiction may indeed become psychologically depressed due to the negative consequences the disease of alcoholism has on his or her life. In fact, alcoholism and depression are very common comorbidities. However, it isn’t the alcohol itself that made the individual feel sad or hopeless, instead it is the effects of the disease that can lead to depression.
Is Alcohol a Depressant?
Is alcohol a depressant? Absolutely. Ethyl alcohol has a powerful effect on the central nervous system and the brain. Alcohol binds to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, which induces the feelings of sedation, and also inhibits glutamate, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the central nervous system. Alcohol also causes the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released, producing that well-known “feel good” response that then becomes established in the brain’s reward system as a positive memory.
Alcohol can also cause stimulatory effects. Upon consuming alcohol, some individuals may become euphoric. Some may experience increased heart rate, while others may exhibit aggressive behaviors. It is believed that individuals who have a high tolerance to the sedating effects of alcohol will likely consume higher quantities to achieve sedation, and are therefore at a higher risk for developing an alcohol use disorder.
Effects of Alcohol Intoxication
So why do people drink? What is the allure of the substance? While the majority of people only indulge in drinking alcohol occasionally, usually while participating at a social event or on a special occasion, some individuals misuse alcohol. Some examples of why people abuse alcohol might include:
- They begin to rely on the sedating effects to relieve stress
- They self-medicate the symptoms of a mood disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder
- The use alcohol to increase their feelings of confidence
The effects of drinking alcohol may include the following:
- Slurred speech
- Lower blood pressure
- Slowed heart rate
- Uninhibited behavior
- Impaired motor skills, clumsiness
- Depressed breathing
- Mental confusion, fuzzy thinking
- Impaired judgment, poor decision making
- Nausea and vomiting
- Cognitive and memory impairment
The Danger of Alcohol Poisoning
When wondering “Is alcohol a depressant?” look no further than alcohol toxicity for the answer. The depressant effects of alcohol can become lethal if the individual consumes more than the body can process. Excessive consumption causes depress the central nervous system to the point of respiratory failure can cause death. Alcohol poisoning occurs when an individual has ingested five or more drinks in a time span of two hours or less, overwhelming the body’s ability to process it. The higher the blood alcohol concentration is, the more impaired the individual becomes.
Signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Shallow breathing
- Slowed heart rate
- Clammy or pale skin
- Low body temperature
It is imperative to call for emergency medical intervention in the event of alcohol poisoning.
What Constitutes an Alcohol Use Disorder?
When an alcohol problem becomes evident, usually after experiencing repeated episodes of inebriation, blackouts, severe hangovers, and withdrawal symptoms, it is likely the individual has acquired an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol misuse over a protracted period of time leads to increased tolerance and higher consumption. All the while, the brain’s chemical structure and neural pathways are continually adapting to the presence of alcohol, which eventually leads to alcohol dependency. In fact, the American Medical Association defines substance dependence as a chronic brain disease.
Signs of an alcohol use disorder include:
- Cannot stop drinking even though you want to
- Drinking becomes the center of life, with much attention devoted to buying alcohol, drinking, and recovering
- Experiencing cravings
- Try to cut back on alcohol consumption but are unable to
- Avoiding social situations and giving up usual pastimes in favor of drinking
- Neglecting responsibilities at home and work
- Engaging in high-risk behaviors, such as driving under the influence
- Experience increased tolerance and subsequently increased consumption
- Experience withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is withheld
An alcohol use disorder is classified as mild, moderate, or severe based on the number of diagnostic criteria that are present. In addition to the diagnostic criteria, the medical or mental health professional will also order a physical exam and blood tests to help determine the level of severity as it can reveal any number of related health conditions.
How is Alcoholism Treated?
The level of care required to treat alcoholism will be determined by the severity of the disorder. There are distinct differences between alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, and alcohol addiction, each with a treatment route designed to help the individual restore health and functioning.
Detox. If indicated by the length of history and level of alcohol misuse, the individual may need to first complete the medical detox process. Detox and withdrawal refers to the phase of treatment when the individual abstains from alcohol and allows the body to stabilize over a period of days. The withdrawal symptoms begin to emerge 6-12 hours following the last drink, and will peak on days 2 or 3. Symptoms might include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Hand tremors
During the detox process, the addiction specialists will prescribe medical interventions to help ease symptoms as much as possible. In the majority of cases, alcohol detox lasts 5-7 days.
Rehabilitation. Treatment for alcohol use disorder revolves around learning ways to remain abstinent. Rehab programs are available in outpatient or residential formats, with outpatient treatment best suited for mild to moderate alcohol use disorders. Residential rehab programs provide a much higher level of care and monitoring for individuals with moderate to severe disease. A comprehensive approach to treatment will combine the following:
- Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is a central theme in alcohol recovery, allowing the individual to process underlying emotional issues or past traumas that may be contributory. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) provides a blueprint for making fundamental changes in thoughts and action patterns that have kept the individual trapped in the addiction cycle.
- Group therapy. Meeting with peers in recovery, or engaging in family-focused sessions, provides an opportunity to discuss topics related to recovery with others. New communication skills and conflict resolution techniques are taught in the group setting.
- Education. Learning about the impact of alcohol on brain chemistry and structure can act as a deterrent to relapse. In addition, the classes guide individuals to form relapse prevention strategies.
- Naltrexone. Some individuals with more severe AUD may benefit from medication-assisted treatment. Naltrexone is a non-narcotic medication that can assist in reducing alcohol cravings and relapse, helping to sustain sobriety.
- 12-step or similar programming. Recovery meetings provide important social support and the opportunity to establish new sober friendships.
- Adjunctive activities. Rounding out rehabilitation are several activities that augment the evidence-based therapies, including learning how to practice mindfulness, yoga class, art therapy, and outdoor recreational therapy.
Dual diagnosis treatment. A large percentage of individuals with alcohol addiction also struggle with a mood disorder. A recent study noted that individuals with an alcohol use disorder are at increased risk for developing major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, antisocial and borderline personality disorders. Data supports utilizing an integrated treatment approach for dual diagnosis to ensure that both the alcohol use disorder and the mental health disorder are both treated at the same time.
How to Sustain Sobriety
A prime focus of rehab is to provide individuals with the tools they will need to access in recovery that will help them overcome cravings and other triggers, therefore avoiding relapse. An effective treatment program will equip the individual with new coping skills, teach them relaxation techniques, encourage new healthy lifestyle habits, and guide them in creating their own individualized relapse prevention plan.
In recovery, actions to help avoid a relapse include:
- Have a confidante. This can be a sponsor, a close friend, a sibling, or a spouse, someone you maintain honest, open communication with in recovery
- Continue doing the work of recovery. Go to meetings, work the steps, be of service
- Establish a regular sleep routine and get at least 7 hours of quality sleep nightly
- Avoid people or situations where drinking or heavy partying is happening
- Leave destructive friendships behind and begin making friends in the sober community
- Begin seeking enjoyable sober activities and shift completely to a sober lifestyle
- Keep stress under control with yoga, prayer, meditation, deep breathing work, or massage
- Continue outpatient psychotherapy
Ken Seeley Communities Addiction Recovery Complex in Palm Springs
Ken Seeley Communities is a leading addiction recovery treatment center serving the Coachella Valley. Founder Ken Seeley is a renowned professional interventionist who was a staple on the A&E series, Intervention. His recovery complex serves individuals in need of addiction treatment, including providing intervention services, medical detox, outpatient rehab programming, residential rehab programming, and sober living housing. If you wonder if alcohol is a depressant or have any other questions about alcohol use disorder, please reach out to our team today at (877) 744-0502.