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Is Alcohol a Depressant? How Alcohol Impacts Your Body

Alcohol may have initial stimulating effects, such as increased sociability or relaxation, but its overall impact on the body and the central nervous system (CNS) is depressant in nature. Too often, drinkers turn to alcohol believing that they will find relief from sadness, irritation, or exhaustion only to find that those issues are exacerbated after a few drinks.

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Alcohol’s Sedating Abilities

Alcohol works by exerting a depressive influence on the CNS, slowing its activity.[1] It disrupts the communication between nerve cells, leading to an overall dampening of brain function that results in sedation, relaxation, and a release of inhibitions.

When we drink alcohol, it interacts with a variety of brain chemicals, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA naturally calms the brain, keeping things in check and promoting relaxation. Alcohol enhances the effects of GABA, leading to a further slowing down of brain activity and an overly pronounced sedation and relaxation.[2]

Whether used regularly or on occasion, alcohol also slows down important cognitive processes, including memory, attention, and decision making. It’s like alcohol presses the snooze button on the brain, making it harder to stay sharp, a problem that is compounded by alcohol’s negative impact on physical coordination. When under the influence, even walking can be difficult.

The depressive effect of alcohol continues to take a physical toll even when the drinker “passes out” or goes to sleep. Consuming large amounts of alcohol can suppress the respiratory system, which causes slowed or shallow breathing.[3] In severe cases, this can result in respiratory failure, which means that breathing is slowed to the point that it stops completely, an issue that can be life-threatening.[4,5]

Understanding a Depressant Classification

Depressant drugs, including alcohol, possess a distinct set of characteristics that transform the way the brain operates. These substances exert their influence on the central nervous system, bringing about a state of calm and tranquility. 

Some of the common effects of depressant use that can occur no matter what the reason, combination, or amount taken include the following:[6-8]

Central Nervous System Depression 

Depressants slow down the bustling activity within our central nervous system by inhibiting the transmission of signals between nerve cells. 

Sedation & Relaxation

Depressants induce a state of deep relaxation and calm. Many people report a lessened experience of anxiety when they use depressant substances like alcohol.

Sleep Induction

With their sedative properties, depressants slow down the body’s function, making people tired when under their influence. In some cases, they can slow down the body’s function so much that the person’s body systems, such as their respiratory system, stop functioning.

Muscle Relaxation

Some forms of depressants are designed for this, like muscle relaxants. But many people use other types of depressants like alcohol for this purpose: to ease tension that is both physical and mental.

Slowed Reflexes & Impaired Motor Skills

Depressants can impair coordination, reaction time, and overall motor skills. They may cause drowsiness and decreased alertness, which can affect physical performance and cognitive abilities.

Respiratory Depression

Certain depressants, particularly in high doses or when combined with other substances like alcohol, can suppress the respiratory system, leading to slowed breathing and potentially dangerous respiratory depression. Alcohol can also cause this on its own when it is consumed at high enough levels.

Dependence & Withdrawal

Persistent use of depressants can lead to physical dependence. This can form with chronic alcohol abuse, and it may result in withdrawal symptoms — like anxiety, tremors, nausea, headaches, muscle aches, and more — when use is stopped suddenly.

Signs of Depressant Use

When someone is under the influence of a depressant, there are several signs to look for, such as these:[9-13]

  • Impaired coordination and unsteady movements 
  • Slurred speech and slowed or delayed responses
  • Drowsiness or excessive fatigue
  • Dilated pupils or droopy eyelids
  • Decreased inhibitions and lowered social or emotional responsiveness
  • Poor judgment and decision-making abilities
  • Shallow or slowed breathing
  • Nausea, vomiting, or gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • In severe cases or with high doses, unconsciousness or coma

How Alcohol Impacts the Body

Alcohol and other depressant drugs have a significant impact on the body, particularly on the central nervous system. By slowing down brain activity, these substances induce relaxation, sedation, and altered thinking. 

Cognitive abilities become clouded, coordination falters, and reflexes slow down. Breathing may become shallow, and in extreme cases, it may even stop entirely. For many, drinking too much or mixing a depressant drug, like a benzodiazepine, with alcohol can result in an overdose.[14] 

Depressants like alcohol also affect the cardiovascular system, liver, and digestive system, damaging organs and stopping them from performing their functions.[15] 

Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction

With alcohol abuse, the negative effects of this depressant substance pile up. In time, all body systems are affected, and all areas of life suffer. 

If you’ve been abusing alcohol for a while, don’t attempt to stop on your own suddenly. This could trigger life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.[16] You need medical supervision and psychological support to safely detox from alcohol. 

You may be prescribed medication as part of a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program to help you manage alcohol use disorder.[17] And in therapy, you’ll build skills that can keep you from returning to alcohol abuse.

Updated November 11, 2023
  1. Alcoholism and its effects on the central nervous system. Mukherjee S. Current Neurovascular Research. 2013;10(3):256-262.
  2. Gamma-aminobutyric acid type A receptors and alcoholism: intoxication, dependence, vulnerability, and treatment. Krystal JH, Staley J, Mason G, et al. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2006;63(9):957-968.
  3. Acute alcohol intoxication in adolescents: Frequency of respiratory depression. Langhan ML. The Journal of Emergency Medicine. 2013;44(6):1063-1069.
  4. The impact of alcohol on breathing parameters during sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Kolla BP, Foroughi M, Saeidifard F, Chakravorty S, Wang Z, Mansukhani MP. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2018;42:59-67.
  5. Understanding the dangers of alcohol overdose. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Published 2017. Accessed October 1, 2023.
  6. Alcohol and other depressants. University of Central Florida. Accessed October 5, 2023.
  7. Alcohol dependence, withdrawal, and relapse. Becker HC. Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2008;31(4):348-361.
  8. Alcohol’s effects on brain and behavior. Sullivan EV, Harris RA, Pfefferbaum A. Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2010;33(1-2):127-143
  9. Effects of alcohol on psychomotor performance and perceived impairment in heavy binge social drinkers. Brumback T, Cao D, King A. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2007;91(1):10-17.
  10. Alcohol’s effects on lung health and immunity. Simet SM, Sisson JH. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. 2015;37(2):199-208.
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