Is Alcohol a Stimulant?? Why that’s Important
Although no evidence exists that different types of alcohol, such as beer, wine, and bourbon, cause drinkers to experience unique moods, research indicates how we expect to feel after drinking an alcoholic beverage dictates whether we feel up or down.
Decades ago, psychologist Alan Marlatt experimented with how alcohol affects mood by telling subjects they were drinking alcohol when, in fact, they were not drinking alcohol.
- Marlatt found that these people acted intoxicated even though they were drinking non-alcoholic drinks.
The neurobiology of alcohol’s stimulating effects is well-known and involves the “reward” center of the brain. Specifically, the neurotransmitter dopamine causes drinkers to feel animated, euphoric, and expressive while drinking. In addition, alcohol activates dopamine release within the brain’s reward circuitry and increases glucose (blood sugar) metabolism, which contributes to drinkers feeling stimulated after having several alcoholic beverages.
- The answer to the question is yes. Alcohol can act as a stimulant on some people.
- However, the answer is also no because alcohol is a depressant drug.
Neurobiologists know less about how alcohol exerts soothing effects on the brain. Instead, specific brain organelles–the putamen, thalamus, and pons–may play essential roles in alcohol’s ability to depress the central nervous system.
Positron emission tomography scans have revealed that consuming moderate or high amounts of alcohol interferes with brain glucose metabolism, depressing brain activity. Other studies indicate alcohol impairs amygdala functioning and the ability of a drinker to distinguish non-threatening stimuli from threatening stimuli correctly. In addition, it explains why alcohol reduces anxiety, increases impulsivity, and diminishes motor coordination.
A study published in JAMAPsychiatry found that heavy drinkers, or those who drink several times a week, experience more significant stimulatory effects than those who were light drinkers. It could help explain why some people become alcohol abusers while others can occasionally drink without developing alcohol addiction.
In some people, alcohol may encourage aggression by weakening brain areas involved in impulsive restraining behavior (disinhibition hypothesis). In addition, alcohol causes intoxicated individuals to misinterpret social and verbal cues by stimulating yet debilitating information processing centers in the brain. However, as drinkers imbibe more and more alcohol, these centers essentially “shut down,” allowing alcohol sedative effects to take over.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, alcohol imparts “effects similar to those of a depressant.” Clinically, alcohol is a depressant because it significantly slows down central nervous system activity, specifically speech, cognition, reaction time, and movement. However, the way alcohol affects people can depend on the drinker’s mood when they become intoxicated, environmental influences, and even genetics.
While alcohol is a depressant, it may exert stimulatory effects not attributed to chemical changes in the brain.