Although no evidence exists that different types of alcohol, such as beer, wine and bourbon, cause drinkers to experience unique moods, there are research results indicating 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.
Is Alcohol a Stimulant?
The neurobiology of alcohol’s stimulating effects are well-known and involve the “reward” center of the brain. Specifically, it is the neurotransmitter dopamine that causes drinkers to feel animated, euphoric and uninhibited while drinking. Alcohol activates dopamine release within the brain’s reward circuitry and increases metabolism of glucose (blood sugar), which contributes to drinkers feeling stimulated after having several alcoholic beverages.
- The answer to the question “is alcohol a stimulant” is “yes”. Alcohol can act as a stimulant on some people.
- However, the answer is also “no”, because alcohol is classified as a depressant drug.
Alcohol as a Sedative
Neurobiologists know less about how alcohol exerts sedative effects on the brain. Specific brain organelles–the putamen, thalamus and pons–may play important roles in alcohol’s ability to depress the central nervous system.
Positron emission topography scans have revealed that consuming moderate or high amounts of alcohol interferes with metabolism of brain glucose which may depress brain activity. Other studies indicate alcohol impairs amygdala functioning and the ability of a drinker to correctly distinguish nonthreatening stimuli from threatening stimuli. This could explain why alcohol reduces anxiety, increases impulsivity and diminishes motor coordination as well.
Heavy vs Light Drinkers
A study published in JAMAPsychiatry found that heavy drinkers, or those who drink several times a week, experience greater stimulatory affects than those who were light drinkers. This could help explain why some people become alcohol abusers while others can drink occasionally and not develop an alcohol addiction.
Alcohol and Aggressive Behavior
In some people, alcohol may encourage aggression by weakening brain areas involved in restraining impulsive behavior (disinhibition hypothesis). By stimulating yet debilitating information processing centers in the brain, alcohol causes intoxicated individuals to misinterpret social and verbal cues. However, as drinkers imbibe more and more alcohol, these centers essentially “shut down”, allowing alcohol’s 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 considered 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 mood of the drinker at the time they become intoxicated as well as environmental influences and even genetics. While alcohol is a depressant, it may exert stimulatory effects not attributed to chemical changes in the brain.