Is Alcohol A Stimulant? The short answer? Yes. And no.
When you think of drinking alcohol, you might assume that alcohol is a stimulant. What, with all the parties and excitement associated with drinking alcohol, this would be a reasonable assumption.
However, alcohol is actually classified as a depressant. The reason is in the way it works.
Alcohol works by mimicking an inhibitory neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. These neurotransmitters are responsible for sending certain messages to the brain which results in sedation, relaxation, and improvements in mood.1 These effects are similar to other depressant drugs such as benzodiazepines, which work in a similar manner.
The Stimulant and Depressant Effects of Alcohol
When a person is inhibited, they may feel more inclined to be social or do things they wouldn’t normally do, such as dance or do something a little crazy. This is where some people would assume that alcohol is a stimulant. And they are actually right based on other effects of alcohol.
Studies have shown that stimulant effects of alcohol may be associated with the dopamine “reward” system. When someone drinks alcohol, they may feel a sense of wellbeing and euphoria. These effects can occur as a result of increased dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain.2
Research has shown that these stimulant and euphoric effects can occur as blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) rise, say, after one or two drinks. As BACs increase to a higher level, however, sedative effects are more fully experienced.3
Stimulant Effects of Alcohol include:
- Excitatory behavior
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Improvements in mood
Depressant Effects of Alcohol include:
- Reduced anxiety
- Slowed breathing
- Cognitive impairment
- Lack of motor skills or coordination
- Slurred speech
Another important thing to note is that alcoholism risk may be higher in people who experience a greater stimulant response after drinking. Those who do not carry a high risk for alcohol dependence experience a greater sedative response.4 Of course, other familial and genetic factors may play a role in these particular responses.5
How is Alchohol a Stimulant?
Overall, alcohol is classified as a depressant that has mostly inhibitory effects in the brain. However, research has found that alcohol may affect other neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, glutamate, and dopamine.6
Increased dopamine levels may lead to the common euphoric and stimulatory effects apparent after a couple drinks. These effects may result in behaviors that are influenced by other stimulant drugs. Therefore, alcohol does exhibit some stimulant effects depending on the person and how much they drink.
Drinking one or two alcoholic drinks may cause a person to be more socially active. After consuming several drinks, the depressant effects of alcohol become more obvious. Depressant effects can be severe or even dangerous in cases of alcohol toxicity and overdose. Signs and symptoms of toxicity and overdose include slowed breathing, extreme sedation, slurred speech, and in more severe cases, coma or death.7
In most cases, though, if alcohol is consumed responsibly, an individual may experience mild stimulant effects as their blood alcohol concentrations rise and depressant effects when high blood alcohol concentrations are reached. Based on this activity, while alcohol’s mode of action classifies it as a depressant, alcohol can produce both stimulant and sedative effects.
- Lobo IA, Harris RA. GABA(A) receptors and alcohol. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2008;90(1):90-4.
- Trantham-Davidson H, Burnett EJ, Gass JT, et al. Chronic alcohol disrupts dopamine receptor activity and the cognitive function of the medial prefrontal cortex. J Neurosci. 2014;34(10):3706-18.
- Chung T, Martin CS. Subjective stimulant and sedative effects of alcohol during early drinking experiences predict alcohol involvement in treated adolescents. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2009;70(5):660-7.
- Hendler RA, Ramchandani VA, Gilman J, Hommer DW. Stimulant and sedative Effects of alcohol. Behavioral Neurobiology of Alcohol Addiction Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences. 2011:489-509. doi:10.1007/7854_2011_135.
- King AC, de Wit H, McNamara PJ, Cao D. Rewarding, stimulant, and sedative alcohol responses and relationship to future binge drinking. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(4):389-99.
- Neurotransmitters in alcoholism: A review of neurobiological and genetic studies. Indian J Hum Genet. 2014;20(1):20-31.
- Adger H, Saha S. Alcohol use disorders in adolescents. Pediatr Rev. 2013;34(3):103-13; quiz 114.