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Is Alcohol a Stimulant or Depressant?

The timeless debate - whether alcohol is a stimulant or depressant - continues to this day. The following article explores exactly what effect it has on the body and the mechanism of action behind such effect.
WellnessKeen Staff
Last Updated: Apr 23, 2018
Alcohol plays a dichotomous role once it enters your system - it starts off by acting as a stimulant but ends up as a depressant. You see, alcohol is one of the most volatile compounds and happens to have multiple personalities! From alchemists to physicians, from poets to lovers, alcohol has never ceased to garner widespread attention - be it in the form of appreciation or criticism! Alcohol and liquor have occupied prestigious ranks in the courts of pompous kings and emperors besides holding endearing significance in the life of the homeless and pauper! However, the question of whether alcohol is a stimulant or a depressant has pervaded time and continues to this day, its patrons and connoisseurs taking a stand in favor of it while its critics going the other way. Let us take a detailed look at, and find out, the effects of alcohol on the body to determine whether alcohol is a stimulant or depressant.
So, what exactly is alcohol, a stimulant or a depressant? Well, it's both! Which of its effects you experience depends upon how much alcohol you consumed and how long ago! Alcohol attracts, what may be called, a biphasic response. In other words, it attracts both stimulant and depressant responses from the consumer and the effects vary between light and heavy drinkers.
Stimulating Effects of Alcohol
Whether alcohol is a stimulant or depressant depends upon the amount consumed and how much time has passed since the last intake. The ethanol content in alcohol that is meant for consumption causes the release of Dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurohormone whose increased release causes the heart rate and blood pressure to increase. This gives the initial "flushed" feeling and imparts a sudden warmth to the face and extremities of the body. Speech becomes faster and a person tends to lower his guards and drop inhibitions as the initial effects of alcohol start setting in. This effect can, especially, be seen within the first few minutes of drinking alcoholic liquors such as brandy, vodka or rum. Red wine also gives a similar flush but this effect is more gradual in wine's case and the sudden warmth is substituted by a gradual "glow", if you know what I mean. Therefore, in the initial moments of its intake, alcohol acts as a stimulant and acts as an anti-inhibitor.
Depressing Effects of Alcohol
The ethanol found in alcohol is a psychoactive drug and is a central nervous system depressant. Alcohol and depression are inseparable companions. High quantity consumption for a long duration and chronic alcohol addiction causes such side effects as slurred speech, blurred vision, poor balance and coordination, loss of muscle coordination, diminished mental focus and ability to concentrate and, in severe cases, even death! After the initial rush, high levels of ethanol in the bloodstream get carried to the brain. Being a central nervous system depressant, it slowly starts loosening the nervous system's control over the body's other organs and functions. This is what causes loss of coordination and balance. It also causes the heart rate to slow down, leading to hypotension, which imparts a feeling of dizziness or drowsiness, followed by hangover. The depressant side effects of alcohol manifest slower if alcohol is consumed with meals or on a full stomach as this causes its rate of absorption into the bloodstream to slow down. Taken on an empty stomach, the alcohol reaches the bloodstream in no time, causing its side effects to manifest quickly and more potently! To determine if alcohol is a stimulant or a depressant for the nervous system, I'd say it is definitely a depressant, judging by its long-term effects and assuming that the regular drinker's alcohol intake, per occasion, tends to be on the moderate to higher side! You may read is alcohol a depressant to find out more about alcohol's depressant features.
As we saw, whether alcohol is a stimulant or depressant depends upon the quantity consumed and the time that has passed since its consumption. However, to give a final verdict on the debate regarding whether alcohol is a stimulant or depressant, it would not be unfair to say that alcohol is definitely a depressant in the end. The stimulating effects are initial and short-lived whereas the depressant effects, that set in later, are longer lasting and are experienced the most by victims of alcoholism. After all, a drunkard is better identified by his faltering steps and slurry speech rather than his garrulous confidence and ruddy glow!