Is alcohol a depressant? Understand why it matters
October 24, 2023
As depression rates continue to climb in many parts of the world, mental health professionals continue to look at external factors in hopes of understanding why. Some such explanations have included the proliferation of social media use and its impact on users and observers alike, environmental stressors, increased societal polarity on political and social issues, and higher instances of isolation and loneliness that began for many individuals during the pandemic.
But another connection that behavioral scientists have been looking at is any association between increased instances of alcohol consumption and increased rates of depressive episodes and symptoms.
What are depressants?
To understand such connections, it’s important to know how depressants work. Research shows that depressants affect one’s central nervous system by reducing feelings of stimulation or arousal in users while also slowing down or interfering with messages between their brain and body.
Examples of depressants include sleeping pills, alcohol and opioids such as illegal drugs like heroin or legal ones like OxyContin, Vicodin or morphine. Sometimes medications such as benzodiazepines or barbiturates that have been designed to slow brain activity in an attempt to treat anxiety, seizures, or panic disorders are also considered depressants, but there remains some debate between academics on that point.
When it comes to depressants like drugs or alcohol, such substances often release neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine when they first hit the body. “Initially, this results in a euphoric high,” says Norman Rosenthal, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School. But that sense of euphoria quickly diminishes and “a rebound effect” occurs, he explains. This often leads to feelings of depression or anxiety in many users.
Do depressants cause depression?
In this way, depressants can cause depression symptoms, but, with a couple noted exceptions, they don’t usually create the mental health condition in the user in the first place. “Depressants don’t cause depression, but they may make a person feel disinterested and slowed down cognitively,” explains Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, a clinical & health psychologist and founder of Priority Wellness based in Boston, Massachusetts.
It’s also worth noting a correlation and causation issue here in that substance abuse and diagnosed depression often coexist in many people, which can make it hard to pinpoint where one problem ends and another begins. “Data reveals that 27% of people with major depressive disorder also have a drug addiction,” says Jameca Woody Cooper, PhD, a psychologist and adjunct professor at Webster University in Missouri. In other words, depressants can both lead to feelings of depression while also making matters worse for people already battling clinical depression.
Is alcohol a depressant?
It may be helpful to understand how alcoholic in particular can affect these feelings. “Alcohol is known as a depressant because it slows down brain and nervous functioning,” explains Rosenthal. “In addition, alcohol can depress the levels of mood regulating neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and norepinephrine,” he adds.
Such effects aren’t always immediate, however, and issues can and often do build over time. “While a single drink can have both stimulant, anti-anxiety and sedative effects, the sedative effects become more prominent as people drink more heavily,” notes John Krystal, MD, a professor of psychiatry, neuroscience and psychology at Yale Department of Psychiatry. In this way, it’s believed that alcohol use is one of the few depressants that can lead to depression in some users when consumed in high amounts. “Persistent heavy drinking, particularly alcohol use disorder, increases the risk for depression,” Krystal says.
Even absent clinical depression, however, Dattilo notes that moderate amounts of alcohol consumption also “slows down the system,” which can lead to feelings of melancholy in some users.