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Is Alcohol a Depressant?
Alcohol is a legal, recreational drug that people often drink to feel better or to cope with their feelings. The effects of alcohol on the body range from stimulant to sedative, and long-term use could potentially alter a person’s brain chemistry. The classification of drugs is determined by their chemical targets within the brain, but alcohol causes different effects as it passes through the body. Alcohol affects over 100 unique receptors in the brain but is ultimately classified as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant.
How Alcohol Affects the Brain
The classification of alcohol was not always so clear due to the many different effects it has on the body and mind. Drinking alcohol depresses the central nervous system and enhances the effects of the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), also known as the “slowdown chemical.” GABA is responsible for sending certain messages to the brain which result in sedation, relaxation, and improvements in mood. These are effects that are similar to other depressants, such as Benzodiazepines.
Studies have shown that the effects of alcohol are determined by how much someone drinks and whether or not their blood alcohol content (BAC) is rising or falling. While in the process of drinking, alcohol acts as a stimulant, but as drinking wears off, it begins to act as a sedative. This is because alcohol causes different effects as it passes through the body. First, about 20% of alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream when it reaches the stomach then the rest moves to the small intestine. Within the small intestine, 80% of the alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the blood where it moves into the veins and is delivered to all parts of the body, including the brain.
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Once alcohol reaches the brain, it triggers the release of “feel-good” chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin and increases levels of norepinephrine that cause excitement and arousal. A descending BAC leads to a decrease in energy and an increase in fatigue, relaxation, confusion, and depression. These chemical changes result in physical side effects that slow down reflexes and speech as well as the ability to process information. Drinking too much in one session can be dangerous and result in decreased body temperature and breathing, or alcohol poisoning.
Although alcohol causes a wide variety of effects in the body and brain, it mostly affects the GABA receptor in the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the cerebellum. These parts of the brain react to low levels of alcohol and showed a decrease in activity after alcohol consumption. Lower activity in these regions of the brain may result in memory loss, decreased motor activity, and impaired judgement, which are all common side effects of depressants.
Does Alcohol Cause Depression?
Since alcohol is categorized as a depressant and alters brain chemicals that regulate mood, some may wonder if alcohol causes depression. Professionals have studied the connection between alcohol and mood disorders and have discovered many interesting interactions. Drinking too much can deplete a person of neurotransmitters associated with feeling content but, the brain normally recovers after a night of drinking. Heavy use of alcohol over time can lead to permanent changes in the brain, resulting in depression or another mood disorder.
A review of studies from 2015 shows that, compared to people without alcohol dependence, those who were dependent had a higher risk of developing a mental health problem. People with alcoholism are 4 times more likely to become depressed, more than 6 times at risk for bipolar disorder, and more than 4 times at risk for generalized anxiety disorder.
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Drinking Alcohol With a Mood Disorder
People with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety are more likely to develop a dependence to alcohol or become alcoholic. Someone who is sad may drink heavily as a way of “self-medicating,” but this is dangerous and increases the risk of developing an addiction. In addition, studies have shown that patients with co-occurring disorders (such as alcoholism and depression) have more difficulty when going through substance abuse treatment.
Alcohol can also impair the effectiveness of some antidepressants or worsen the medication’s side effects. Some effects of drinking Alcohol while on antidepressant medication include:
- Increased feelings of depression or anxiety
- Rise in blood pressure
- Extreme sleepiness
Patients may even stop taking antidepressants in order to drink, which can lead to withdrawal effects from the prescription medication. A person should never stop taking antidepressant medication without first consulting their doctor.
Get Help for Alcohol and other Depressant Abuse Now
If you are struggling with alcohol abuse or feeling depressed, reach out for help, and start your road to recovery. Contact a dedicated treatment provider for more information.
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