Often times, people associate alcohol in party or social settings. This might lead people to assume that alcohol has a positive effect on the brain. However, alcohol actually is a depressant.
Alcohol and the Brain
Alcohol is classified as a depressant because of the way its chemicals interact with the brain. The way alcohol affects someone can depend on how much they are drinking, their blood alcohol content (BAC), and the rate at which they drink. As someone begins drinking, they will feel the stimulant effects. As the blood alcohol content begins to decrease again, the depressant or sedative effects take place.
Alcohol is a unique depressant because it may first act like a stimulant in the brain. Stimulants influence chemicals like dopamine or norepinephrine. These chemicals may make a person feel good. This could be why some may not realize that alcohol is a depressant. The initial effects of alcohol lead to some feelings of energy, impulsivity, and happiness. Some describe this as feeling “buzzed.” After these initial stimulant reactions take place, the depressant symptoms appear.
PET scans of the brain even show which parts of the brain are active while drinking. The front of the brain, which controls decision making, ends up decreasing activity. This explains why people make reckless decisions while drinking. The prefrontal cortex also plays a role in aggression management. This could explain why people act more aggressively when drinking. PET scans also reveal less activity in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that forms new memories. This could explain why people forget things that happen while drinking. Brain studies also reveal why people become clumsy or stumble when drunk. With alcohol, there is less activity in the cerebellum which is the part of the brain that supports motor activity and coordination.
Other physical side effects of alcohol include slowed reflexed, slurred speech, slowed breathing, decreased body temperature, and slower word processing. Each of these are depressant symptoms.
Drinking and Mood Disorder
Since alcohol is a depressant, how does it affect depression, anxiety, or mood disorders?
Studies have shown that, since alcohol effects the part of the brain that regulate emotions, it can put people at higher risk for depression. This higher risk comes with extended use, as recovery is more difficult from long periods of time of drinking. This high risk would likely not occur from one night.
People may question about a possible connection between mood disorders and alcohol abuse, as both can affect the brain. A 2015 study review found that people with alcohol dependence also have four times the risk for depression, six times the risk for bipolar disorder, and four times the risk for generalized anxiety disorder.
Doctors also warn that it can be very dangerous to combine alcohol with anti-depressants, as alcohol can worsen symptoms. Be sure to speak with a doctor before drinking if you take any medications.
As with any substance, it is important to consume alcohol safely. Moderation is key to safe consumption. If you or a loved one have any questions or concerns about alcohol or depression, speak with a doctor or specialist. Seeking help or support from experts can be a great, life-changing choice.