Is alcohol a downer or upper? Addictive substances are typically classified as either uppers or downers. These terms refer to the physical and mental reactions an individual experiences when intoxicated by a specific substance. As stimulants, uppers produce an increase in energy, focus, and confidence while downers act as depressants, causing lethargy, euphoria, and pain relief.

Despite their contrasting side effects, both uppers and downers are equally capable of inflicting damage to the user. Medical complications associated with uppers include rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and agitation whereas downers contribute to breathing suppression, low blood pressure, and severe motor skill impairment. 

Alcohol, while it has stimulating effects, is classified as a depressant, or downer.

Is Alcohol an Upper or Downer? 

Alcohol is classified as a downer since it is a central nervous system depressant, but it does have some stimulant properties. Small amounts of alcohol may increase your heart rate, increase your aggression and impulsiveness, and provide you with a boost of energy. However, larger consumption of alcohol lowers your mental sharpness, blood pressure, and heart rate, typically producing sluggishness, disorientation, and slower reaction times. How alcohol affects you personally depends on your body chemistry, the amount you consume, and your alcohol tolerance.

Stimulant Effects of Alcohol

When you first drink alcohol, your brain is notified through the release of dopamine, the “pleasure hormone,” which makes you feel stimulated and inspired. Furthermore, it might raise your heart rate and make you more aggressive, both of which are typical of stimulants. When your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is near 0.05 milligrams per liter (mg/l), you will feel stimulated and energized. However, once your BAC reaches 0.08 mg/l—the level at which you are considered legally impaired to drive in most regions of the United States—you will feel more depressed.

It is vital to recognize that the consequences of alcohol vary widely from person to person and are influenced by a range of factors, including body chemistry, sex, weight, alcohol tolerance, and the quantity of alcohol consumed. Furthermore, some individuals may experience more stimulating effects from alcohol, while others may experience more sedative ones. According to researchers, people who experience more stimulating effects and less sedative ones may be at higher risk for addiction.

Depressant Effects of Alcohol

When you consume alcohol, it initially stimulates your central nervous system but later decreases blood pressure, heart rate, and mental sharpness. Individuals who have consumed massive amounts of alcohol may seem sleepy, disoriented, or sedated, in addition to having slower reaction times. As a result of higher doses of alcohol suppressing dopamine production, you may feel listless or sad. Once your BAC reaches 0.08 mg/l or higher, your respiratory system will become increasingly sedated as a result of its depressive consequences. Coma and even death are possible if your BAC reaches 0.2 mg/l or more.

Why is Alcohol Addictive?

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter located in the brain, and drugs that promote GABA signaling are used as sedatives, muscle relaxants, and anti-anxiety medications, to name a few. The reason why people who consume alcohol heavily slur their speech, have trouble walking and experience memory loss or blackouts is due to the increase in inhibitory signaling in the brain caused by alcohol.

If someone drinks alcohol regularly, their brain will adjust to the augmented inhibition by increasing the excitatory signaling through neurotransmitters such as glutamate. The activity of glutamate is basically opposite to that of GABA and causes a broad increase in the rate of brain cell excitation. Such adjustments (e.g. secondary excitation that counters the initial inhibition) lead to tolerance in problem drinkers – over time, these individuals need to consume more and more alcohol to experience the same effects. This creates a vicious cycle of excessive drinking followed by higher tolerance that eventually leads to addiction.

When a human brain gets used to consuming alcohol regularly, glutamate signaling increases, leading to withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, hallucinations, and seizures if one stops drinking. This is when addiction has set in, making it very hard and risky for a person to quit drinking independently. Furthermore, alcohol has been found to release endorphins, which are natural chemical messengers in the brain that stimulate opiate receptors and create a sense of pleasure and bliss. It is believed that the action of alcohol on the endorphins might be a factor in its addictive nature as well.

Side Effects of Alcohol Consumption

Reactions from drinking alcohol happen within minutes and can last for many hours. These side effects include:

  • Slurred Speech 
  • Impaired motor functioning
  • Dizziness 
  • Suppressed breathing
  • Drowsiness
  • Impaired Judgment
  • Violence and aggression

When drinking heavily, the body views alcohol as a poison, resulting in the possibility of experiencing the following adverse side effects:

  • Vomiting
  • Liver damage
  • Unconsciousness 
  • Stroke 
  • Seizure

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Brain?

Due to the way that alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication routes, it can negatively affect brain appearance and performance. Alcohol negatively impacts balance, memory, language, and judgement brain regions and increases the likelihood of injury and other negative outcomes as a result. Alcohol has detrimental consequences on neurons, resulting in reductions in their size as a result of long-term, heavy usage. Adolescents and young adults who drink excessively are particularly vulnerable to brain development alterations caused by alcohol. Long-term alterations in brain structure and function are the result of brain development being altered as a result of alcohol abuse.

Alcohol misusing can lead to alcohol-induced blackouts. When a person drinks excessively, their memories are not stored in the hippocampus, a brain region responsible for moving short-term memories into long-term memory. A blackout occurs when a person remembers nothing of a period of drunkenness, because drinking enough alcohol to block memory consolidation—the process of moving short-term memories into long-term storage—prevents this.

The consumption of alcohol may lead to an overdose, even when there are clear signs of significant impairment. A person may die from an overdose of alcohol if there’s too much alcohol in their blood stream, which will shut down areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions like breathing, heart rate, and temperature control, leading to confusion, difficulty remaining conscious, vomiting, seizures, difficulty breathing, slow heart rate, clammy skin, and dulled responses such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking).

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Heart?

Alcohol is a major threat to the heart and blood circulatory system, leading to dangerous medical conditions. Over time, drinking too much can significantly raise the odds of getting heart disease. Excessive alcohol consumption leads to high blood pressure which is a major factor in causing heart attacks or strokes. Weight gain due to heavy drinking can also result in increased blood pressure. Additionally, chronic alcohol use can weaken the heart muscle, which lessens its ability to circulate blood effectively. This is called cardiomyopathy and can result in early death due to heart failure. In some cases, the heart may become enlarged.

Drinking alcohol can trigger an elevation in heart rate, which can lead to severe cardiac issues. The amount of time between heart beats can be affected by alcohol consumption. Research has demonstrated that ongoing heavy drinking can cause bouts of tachycardia (a rise in heart rate due to irregularities in the electrical signals that control heartbeat). The difficulties caused by recurring tachycardia episodes differ depending on their frequency, length, and strength, but it can generate blood clots that can result in a heart attack or stroke. High blood pressure, pulse, and weakening of the heart muscles can dramatically raise the risk of heart attack or cardiac problems.

Combining Alcohol with Stimulant Drugs

It is never a good idea to mix alcohol and other drugs, whether they are prescription or illicit drugs. Since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it has an opposite effect than stimulants. Both substances can have their side effects amplified rather than neutralized because of the drug’s effect. Furthermore, the use of alcohol may increase the quantity of drugs in the individual’s system, thereby increasing the likelihood of an overdose.

Alcohol and Amphetamines

When a person takes amphetamines with alcohol, they consume more than they normally would. Because the stimulant masks the impact of intoxication, the person takes more alcohol. This may result in alcohol toxicity. Alcohol and ADHD drugs may also produce cardiac problems, strokes, or seizures if they are mixed. Even with the mildest symptoms, mixing alcohol with prescription stimulants can result in nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.

Alcohol and Heroin

The combination of heroin and alcohol is especially lethal since both are depressants. As this double depressant enters the body, the heart rate can slow down to a hazardous pace and even stop, or the user may cease to breathe, resulting in a lack of oxygen-rich blood being sent to the brain, which can lead to the death of cells in a matter of minutes. Synergistically, the two drugs can result in comas, brain damage, and even fatalities.

Alcohol and Cocaine

Unfortunately, mixing alcohol and cocaine is common. Some people mix alcohol and cocaine in order to heighten their high or to help themselves come down from the cocaine’s stimulating effects. However, when alcohol and cocaine are mixed, the risk of sudden death is 20 times higher than it is when either substance is used alone. Violent behavior is more likely when cocaine and alcohol are mixed, and it is an unpredictable combination that affects people differently every time they use it.

Alcohol and Methamphetamine

One of the most hazardous drugs around is meth. When mixed with alcohol, meth can cause violent or dangerous behavior. Combining the two may increase the severity of the meth crash as well as trigger depressive thoughts, and suicidal ideation. An individual who mixes alcohol and meth may underestimate the amount of either substance they are consuming, which may result in an overdose or death.

Depressants vs Stimulants —Which is More Dangerous?

The risks associated with both of these substances, particularly when taken without a physician’s guidance or if they are bought on the street, are very serious. Depending on the person’s overall health, various drugs can have more hazardous effects. For instance, if someone has existing heart issues such as an abnormal heartbeat or palpitations, stimulants could make the condition worse. Additionally, drugs can impact someone’s mental health, and if a person is already suffering from depression and takes a depressant, then their symptoms are likely to become worse. Both of these drugs can lead to addiction, overdoses and even death. Taking any drug without medical advice can be a gamble.

Dangers of Alcohol Addiction and Abuse

Due to the substance being legal and easily accessible, alcohol is the most abused substance in the world. In fact, the CDC states that approximately 95,000 deaths each year are attributed to alcohol. These fatalities include alcohol-induced traffic accidents, alcohol poisoning, and liver failure among others.  

Heavy or prolonged drinking negatively affects the body in various ways. Alcohol toxicity is a result of drinking in excess and the brain begins to interpret alcohol as poisonous. When the toxicity stage has been reached, breathing suppression begins which then reduces oxygen supply to vital organs significantly. The brain is particularly vulnerable to alcohol abuse. Excessive and prolonged alcohol intake depletes the brain’s thiamine supply resulting in Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, or “wet brain”. Symptoms of this disorder include mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes, difficulty with muscle coordination, and persistent learning and memory problems. 

The liver is also extremely susceptible to damage caused by alcohol abuse as it is responsible for metabolizing alcohol within the body. The three forms of liver disease attributed to excessive alcohol consumption are fatty liver, cirrhosis, and hepatitis. According to the Cleveland Clinic, Cirrhosis causes about 26,000 deaths each year in the U.S. and is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. among adults 25 to 64 years of age. 

Although severe disorders can develop through heavy, prolonged alcohol consumption, impaired driving while under the influence is the leading cause of alcohol-related fatalities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 29 people in the United States die each day in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. 

Can Alcohol Cause a Mental Health Disorder?

It is true that alcohol consumption can be a factor in the manifestation of mental health disorders, and can increase the severity of existing mental health issues. Studies have shown that high levels of drinking are correlated with a heightened probability of developing psychological issues such as depression and anxiety. Furthermore, the effects of alcohol can make it more difficult to overcome these issues. Additionally, alcohol abuse and addiction can cause an array of mental health problems, including:


An alcohol-induced psychosis can trigger hallucinations, false beliefs, and other indications of a psychological disorder in individuals who consume excessive amounts of alcohol.

Cognitive Impairment

Excessive intake of alcoholic beverages can ruin brain cells and result in issues with recollection, focus, and judgment.

Sleep Disorders

Issues with sleep quantity and sleep quality can be caused by alcohol consumption due to its ability to disturb sleeping patterns.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment 

Alcohol is a highly addictive, depressant substance and abusing it can be life-threatening if left untreated. Fortunately, help is available for those battling this addiction. Depending on the stage of an individual’s addiction, they may require detox, an intensive treatment program, or both. Fortunately, Knoxville Recovery Center offers various services to those struggling with this addiction. 

Services offered: 

Detox – Our on-site detox clinic accommodates and supports clients as the body sheds all residual traces of alcohol. Clients are under medical supervision during the detox process to ensure that they remain safe and comfortable. 

Addiction Treatment –  During our addiction treatment program, clients will engage in introductory therapies and exercises that work to prepare them for continued, more intensive treatment outside of our facility. The goal of our addiction treatment track is to stabilize clients so that they are treatment-ready. 

Mental Health Treatment – Our mental health treatment program introduces behavioral therapies rooted in self-expression and holistic exercise. Art therapy, music therapy, and yoga are just a few forms of therapy we offer at the center. Our goal is to help the client reclaim their voice and expose them to treatment within a professional facility.

Aftercare Planning – Aftercare is designed for individuals who have benefitted from our introductory addiction services and are transitioning into a more intensive addiction treatment program. Once a client is stabilized, they will be encouraged to pursue continued addiction treatment. Our experienced case managers will then work with our clients to place them in a program that addresses their specific wants and needs. 

Addiction is difficult to overcome alone. If you feel that you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, our specialists are on standby and ready to help. Call Knoxville Recovery Center and speak with an addiction expert today.

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