Is Alcohol a Stimulant?
Written by SaVanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, LD
January 16, 2020
It’s common knowledge that alcohol affects your brain function, but you may wonder exactly how it works.
Some people think of alcohol as a stimulant that can increase your heart rate, give you energy, and decrease your inhibitions. However, this is not the whole story.
Alcohol has some initial stimulant effects, but it’s primarily a depressant — meaning it slows your body down.
How it affects you depends on your body chemistry, how much alcohol you ingest at once, and your alcohol tolerance.
This article reviews the effects of alcohol, both as a stimulant and a depressant.
Stimulants vs. depressants
Stimulants and depressants both affect your nervous system and brain function, although in opposite ways.
Examples of stimulants include mild ones, such as caffeine, as well as much stronger prescription amphetamines or illicit drugs like cocaine.
Benzodiazepines are one class of depressant drugs used to treat insomnia and anxiety, while prescription opiates are powerful products in this category.
Some compounds can have characteristics of both. Examples include nicotine, although it’s most frequently characterized as a stimulant, and alcohol, which is primarily a depressant but has some stimulant effects (3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
You should not mix alcohol and stimulant or depressant drugs due to the risk of severe side effects.
Stimulants excite your nervous system and may boost your energy, while depressants slow down your nervous system and relax you. Some substances have both stimulant and depressant effects.
Stimulant effects of alcohol
In addition, alcohol can increase your heart rate and may lead to increased aggression in some individuals, both of which are typical of stimulants.
Stimulant effects occur when your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) approaches 0.05 mg/l but are replaced by more depressant effects once your BAC reaches 0.08 mg/l — the level at which you’re considered legally impaired to drive in most areas of the United States (3Trusted Source).
One important thing to note is that the effects of alcohol vary greatly by individual and are influenced by a number of factors, including your body chemistry, sex, weight, alcohol tolerance, and the dose of alcohol consumed.
To get a rough understanding of how many drinks it would take you to reach these BAC levels, there are many calculators available online.
Furthermore, some people may experience more stimulating effects from alcohol, while others may experience more depressant effects. Researchers theorize that people who experience more stimulating effects and fewer sedative effects are at a higher risk for alcoholism (4Trusted Source).
However, while it has some stimulant effects — particularly in low doses — alcohol is mainly a depressant substance.
Alcohol has an initial stimulant effect in lower doses. It can increase your heart rate, aggression, and impulsiveness, as well as cause a surge in dopamine levels.
Depressant effects of alcohol
After the initial stimulant effects, alcohol slows down your central nervous system, decreasing your blood pressure, heart rate, and mental clarity (3Trusted Source).
In turn, people who have ingested large amounts of alcohol have slower reaction times and may seem sleepy, disoriented, or sedated.
In addition, higher doses of alcohol can suppress dopamine production, which can make you feel sad or listless (3Trusted Source).
Depressant effects of alcohol occur when your BAC reaches about 0.08 mg/l. Once your BAC reaches 0.2 mg/l or greater, its depressant effects on your respiratory system can become so powerful that they cause coma or death (3Trusted Source).
In larger quantities, alcohol switches from a stimulant to a depressant. It slows down your nervous system, blood pressure, and heart rate, leading to mental fogginess, drowsiness, and lack of coordination.
The bottom line
Alcohol is a depressant with some stimulant effects. In small doses, it can increase your heart rate, aggression, and impulsiveness.
However, in larger doses, alcohol typically causes sluggishness, disorientation, and slower reaction times, as it decreases your mental sharpness, blood pressure, and heart rate.
How alcohol affects you personally depends on your body chemistry, how much you drink, and your alcohol tolerance.
Note that when it comes to alcohol, moderation is key to avoiding negative health effects.
Moderate drinking is defined as one and two drinks per day for women and men, respectively (5Trusted Source).