Is Alcohol a Stimulant? Understanding Alcohol Myths and Facts

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If alcohol is a depressant, why does it give you a “buzz?” In this article, we’ll explore the question “Is alcohol a stimulant?”

Read on to learn more.

Stimulants vs Depressants: What’s the Difference?

Before we can properly answer the question “Is alcohol a stimulant or a depressant,” we need to define what stimulants and depressants are.

Stimulants and depressants are two broad categories of drugs that have opposing effects on the body’s central nervous system (CNS).

Let’s take each one in turn.

Stimulants, as the name suggests, stimulate the brain and body chemistry. They increase levels of certain chemicals in the brain, leading to heightened alertness, increased energy, and attention. Stimulants can also elevate mood, increase heart rate, and raise blood pressure.

Examples of stimulant drugs include:

  • Amphetamines
  • Methylphenidate
  • Modafinil
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • MDMA


There are also legal or over-the-counter stimulants. Most prominently caffeine, which is found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, and certain medications. There’s also pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), which is a nasal decongestant found in some cold medicines.

These substances work by enhancing the activity of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Dopamine is associated with pleasure and reward, while norepinephrine affects blood vessels, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.

Depressants, on the other hand, slow down the activity of the central nervous system and reduce brain functions. They can reduce anxiety, lower inhibitions, and induce relaxation or drowsiness. Depressants are used medically to treat anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders.

  • Examples of depressants include:

    Benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium, Xanax, Ativan)
  • Barbiturates
  • Sleep Medications
  • GHB (Gamma-hydroxybutyrate): A drug used recreationally for its euphoric and sedative effects, also known for its use in cases of sexual assault.
  • Opioids


Like with stimulants, there are over-the-counter depressants as well. This includes antihistamines like Benadryl, used to treat allergies, colds, and insomnia.

It also includes alcohol, specifically ethyl alcohol (the kind used in alcoholic beverages). Alcohol is the reason people drink wine, beer, and liquor. It’s the most widely used depressant globally and can vary in effects from mild relaxation to significant impairment.

However, alcohol is somewhat of a complex case, because it also has stimulative effects. Whether alcohol is a stimulant or depressant is what we will cover in the next section.

Is Alcohol a Stimulant?

While often thought of as a depressant drug, in moderate amounts alcohol can paradoxically behave like a stimulant.

Alcohol consumed in small quantities causes the brain to increase dopamine production. This leads to euphoria, increased sociability, and boosted confidence, which people commonly describe as a “buzz.” People who drink alcohol often do so because they want to feel these effects.

For the same reason, some people with mood disorders like depression turn to alcohol to self-medicate. This is dangerous because alcohol addiction and mental health disorders are closely linked.

Much like stimulants, small amounts of alcohol can also raise your heart rate. This can lead to more impulsive behavior, as well as aggression.

As more alcohol is consumed, the heart rate begins to beat slower – it’s when moderate quantities are exceeded that alcohol’s depressant qualities are truly felt.

So, how much alcohol is considered moderate consumption? 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines a “standard drink” as 14 grams of alcohol.

This includes:

  • 12 oz of beer
  • 5 oz of wine
  • 5 oz of distilled spirits


Moderate alcohol consumption is one drink per day for women and two per day for men. When you stay within that range, you’ll mostly experience alcohol as a stimulant.

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Facts About Alcohol

Here are some scary facts about alcohol:

  • 6 million Americans suffer from alcohol use disorder, making it the second-most widespread substance addiction after tobacco.
  • Three million deaths occur across the world each year due to alcohol abuse. This represents 5.3% of worldwide deaths.
  • In people aged 20–39 years, roughly 13.5% of total deaths are connected to alcohol abuse.
  • Approximately 17% of men and 8% of women will be dependent on alcohol in their lifetime
  • There is a direct link between alcohol abuse and a range of mental health issues.


Myths About Alcohol

Myth #1: Alcohol Isn’t as Bad as Other Drugs

Alcohol can be as bad as any hard drug out there. It can be just as destructive and just as addictive. It’s linked to a wide range of diseases, including liver disease, heart disease, and cancer, as well as accidents, violence, and addiction. The impact of alcohol abuse can be profound and widespread, affecting not just the individual but also families and communities.

Myth #2: Alcohol Helps You Sleep

Alcohol may make you sleepier, but the sleep you get while it’s in your system is of much lower quality. Alcohol disrupts the sleep cycle, particularly the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, which is considered the most restorative phase. This leads to poorer quality sleep and can contribute to feeling tired and less alert the next day.

Myth #3: Beer and Wine are Safer than Liquor

They’re not – alcohol is alcohol. The main factor in alcohol’s effects is the amount of ethanol consumed, regardless of the form it takes. Beer, wine, and liquor can all be abused and lead to alcohol-related harm. The key is the quantity of alcohol consumed, not necessarily the type. A standard drink (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits) contains the same amount of alcohol.

Myth #4: You Can Sober up by Drinking Coffee

Drinking coffee might make you feel more alert, but it does not reduce the effects of alcohol or help you sober up. The only thing that lowers blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is time. Your liver needs time to metabolize the alcohol and clear it from your system.

Myth #5: Beer Before Liquor, Never Been Sicker; Liquor Before Beer, You’re in the Clear

The sequence of drinking beer and liquor does not affect your likelihood of getting sick. What matters is the overall amount of alcohol consumed. Mixing different types of alcohol can make it harder to keep track of your intake, potentially leading to overconsumption, but the order itself is not the cause of worse hangovers or sickness.

What Are the Dangers of Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol is a drug that carries many risks.

One of the chief dangers of alcohol abuse is alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUD is a chronic, relapsing brain disorder that encompasses a range of behaviors and health problems resulting from alcohol misuse. It brings hugely damaging effects upon the body and mind over time.

Among others, these include damage to the liver, heart, pancreas, and brain, a weakened immune system, and a higher risk of cancer.

Even if you don’t fall into alcoholism, alcohol abuse can bring other dangers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 178,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year.

That number includes overdoses, violence, suicide, and car crashes, as well as miscarriages and stillbirths from pregnant women. Longer-term health risks include cancer, liver, and heart disease also contribute to this figure.

As mentioned earlier, alcohol can cause brain damage. It does this by inhibiting the development of dendrites. Dendrites are the parts of the neurons responsible for problem-solving, memory, and focus.

Women who drink to excess while pregnant increase the risk of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in their children. Among other abnormalities, children born with FAS have a mean IQ of 79 – significantly lower than the average IQ of 100. Studies indicate excessive alcohol consumption can lower IQ in adults as well.

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Alcohol Treatment Program in Orange County, CA at SCBH

If you or a loved one are unable to stop drinking alcohol, South Coast Behavioral Health is here to help you live a healthy life. The first step in treating alcohol addiction is a medical detox. This means using drugs to manage withdrawal symptoms.

Our medical detox program in California is staffed by caring and compassionate professionals who can provide you with medications to manage your withdrawal symptoms.

At South Coast, we take pride in offering care that is closely tailored to specific issues. To that end, we offer gender-specific detox programs, with medical detox for men in Irvine, CA, and medical detox for women in Huntington Beach, CA.

After detoxing, proper treatment can begin.

Treatment for substance abuse takes place along an entire spectrum of care. Along that entire spectrum are various behavioral therapies, support groups, and the use of medically-assisted treatment (MAT).

These levels of treatment are, in order, as follows:

Residential Treatment in California

After successfully completing your alcohol detox, you’ll receive inpatient treatment in Orange County California. There, you’ll receive medically-assisted treatment and dual diagnosis treatment to deal with any cravings or co-occurring mental health issues you may be battling.

We also offer residential treatment facilities in Costa Mesa, Irvine, and Huntington Beach for those who desire gender-specific treatment. There, patients get round-the-clock medical care while living at the institution full-time.

In addition to individual and group counseling and medication management, you’ll also have access to recreational activities and family support services.

Partial Hospitalization in California

Most clients start alcohol addiction treatment with South Coast in our residential treatment program. After completing that, many desire something that still provides structure and support, but with extra space and time to oneself. For that, we offer Partial Hospitalization in Newport Beach.

A step down from inpatient care but with more structure than conventional outpatient care, partial hospitalization offers a good balance for those looking to gradually re-enter back into normal life. Clients can receive care five to seven days a week for several hours each day, returning to their homes or sober living homes in the evening.

This way, they can recover without putting their daily lives completely on hold, receiving intense therapeutic interventions like group and individual therapy, skill development, and medication management as necessary.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment in California

For those leaving inpatient residential treatment or partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient programs (IOP) are yet another gradual step forward on the road to recovery.

With a focus on group therapy, individual counseling, and education, clients undergoing Intensive Outpatient Treatment in Newport Beach can meet three to five days a week. Each outpatient rehab session lasts three hours.

This level of care requires the least amount of attendance at a facility.

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If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction but wonder how long addiction treatment takes or have other questions, call us at 866-881-1184. Our highly qualified staff will be happy to help give you an idea of what to expect from your addiction recovery timeline, verify your insurance, and assist with any other questions you may have.

Pierce Willans
Kelly McIntyre
Medically Reviewed by Kelly McIntyre, MS, LMFT
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