Is Alcohol a Drug? Here’s What You Need To Know

Last Updated: February 1, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Article at a Glance:

  • Alcohol is a depressant drug that alters physical and mental states, leading to addiction and other negative effects.
  • Alcohol contains ethanol, which stimulates GABA receptors, causing physical effects such as impaired balance and coordination and suppressed brain activity.
  • Alcohol artificially releases dopamine, creating a feeling of pleasure and reinforcing its use, contributing to addiction.
  • Although not a controlled substance, alcohol is regulated and requires a license to sell.
  • Alcohol can act as a gateway drug, exposing users to pleasurable feelings and potentially leading to the use of stronger drugs.
  • Long-term heavy alcohol use can cause many health issues, including high blood pressure, heart problems, liver disease and addiction.

Is Alcohol Considered a Drug?

Many people are unaware that alcohol is considered a depressant drug. As a drug, alcohol can lead to addiction and other negative effects, even with only moderate misuse.

A drug is a substance that changes your physical or mental state. While many people think of alcohol as simply a type of beverage, alcohol is considered by some to be a drug because it causes physical and mental changes. However, other experts consider alcohol a psychotropic substance and not a drug.

Unlike many drugs that can cause negative physical effects, alcohol is legal and seen as socially acceptable for recreational use. However, the widespread acceptance of alcohol use can cause people to be less cautious when using it. As a drug, alcohol can have adverse effects and lead to addiction, even when it’s not severely misused.

Why Alcohol Is Considered a Drug

Alcohol is the name of a chemical molecule called ethanol. When you drink a glass of alcohol, your body’s intestines absorb ethanol into the bloodstream. Ethanol stimulates receptors in the brain called GABA receptors.

GABA receptors suppress brain activity when activated, causing many physical effects. Your ability to balance, coordinate, talk and make rational judgments will be suppressed. The intensity of these effects is related to the amount of alcohol used. Because alcohol suppresses brain activity, it is classified as a depressant drug.

The liver begins slowly breaking down ethanol as soon as it is ingested. The time it takes to get rid of the ethanol in your bloodstream fully depends on how healthy and active your liver is and how much ethanol you have used. Alcohol is toxic to the body, so breaking down ethanol causes some liver damage.

Why Do People Drink Alcohol if It’s a Drug?

Many people wonder why alcohol is considered fun to drink. The answer lies in one of the many effects that alcohol has on the brain.

Stimulation of GABA cells causes the release of a brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is released naturally by the brain as a response to pleasure, reinforcing activities that cause pleasure. Dopamine is released when we eat sweet foods, have intercourse or even look at a nice painting. The release causes you to find pleasure in an activity and want to repeat what caused the dopamine release.

Alcohol causes an artificial release of dopamine, as it stimulates receptors in the brain instead of causing the brain to release dopamine naturally. This can cause an artificial feeling of pleasure and reinforce the use of alcohol in the future. This chemical reaction plays an important role in causing alcohol addiction.

Alcohol and Other Drugs

Alcohol differs from drugs like narcotics and stimulants in several important ways. While alcohol, narcotics and stimulants are psychotropic substances that can be addictive, they have important differences.

Alcohol vs. Narcotics

Alcohol and narcotics are depressant substances that impact GABA receptors in the brain. However, narcotics differ from alcohol in important ways. Not only are narcotics typically controlled substances but they can also be prescribed for medically legitimate reasons. In contrast, alcohol is not a controlled substance and has no medically recognized therapeutic use.

Alcohol vs. Stimulants

Alcohol and stimulants differ in many important ways and have opposing actions, including:

  • While alcohol suppresses the central nervous system, stimulants excite it. 
  • While alcohol impacts calming neurotransmitters like GABA in the brain, stimulants tend to affect dopamine and norepinephrine.
  • While stimulants are controlled substances with medically recognized therapeutic uses, stimulants are neither.

Is Alcohol a Controlled Substance?

Controlled substances are drugs regulated by a law called the Controlled Substances Act. This law regulates most medicines and recreational drugs, outlining which drugs require prescriptions, which can be purchased over the counter and which drugs are illegal.

While alcohol is a drug, it is not considered a controlled substance. However, alcohol is regulated, as it requires a license to sell and can only be sold to people 21 or older. Although alcohol is not a controlled substance, it was outlawed briefly during Prohibition.

Is Alcohol a Gateway Drug?

A gateway drug is any drug that gets users more involved in drug use and encourages them to transition to stronger and more dangerous drugs. One important study showed that delaying or preventing alcohol use in 12th graders reduced their risk of using other substances later in life. Alcohol can expose someone to the idea that using a substance can create a pleasurable feeling, increasing the risk of stronger drug use to enhance or maintain that effect later in life.

What Does Alcohol Do to Your Body Over Time?

Because alcohol has a toxic effect on the body, it can create many negative consequences. Further, the effects of alcohol grow as the substance is used over a long period. Regular, heavy alcohol use can lead to:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart problems
  • Stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Cancer
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Brain damage
  • Mental illnesses
  • Addiction

The effects of alcohol become worse over time. The longer you regularly drink, the more severe these effects can be.


If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment programs that can work well for your situation.

Alcohol FAQs

Is alcohol a depressant?

Alcohol activates receptors in the brain that suppress brain activity. Drugs that suppress activity in the brain are classified as depressants, which is why alcohol is considered a depressant drug.

Is alcohol poison?

Poison is described as any substance that is harmful to your body. Alcohol is harmful to your body, especially in high doses. Overdosing on alcohol is actually referred to as alcohol poisoning due to the poisonous effect that it can have.

How long does alcohol stay in your system?

The time it takes to eliminate alcohol from your bloodstream varies based on how much alcohol you have used and your overall health. Generally, alcohol stays in your system for 8–24 hours.

Does alcohol raise blood pressure?

Alcohol has been shown to raise blood pressure. This is especially a concern when large amounts of alcohol are used or your blood pressure is already higher than normal.

Does alcohol thin your blood?

Alcohol affects your platelets, making your blood less likely to coagulate. It also affects how your body absorbs blood clots. This makes it more likely to have serious blood clots, even though your blood is thinner.

How does alcohol affect the brain?

Alcohol affects the brain in many ways. When used, alcohol suppresses brain function and makes head injuries more likely. Nutritional deficits caused by alcohol use can cause permanent brain damage called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Alcohol-related liver damage can cause an increase in a chemical called ammonia that causes changes in the brain. Alcohol can also damage brain growth in fetuses of pregnant women.

How long does it take to detox from alcohol?

While the exact length of alcohol detox will vary for each individual, alcohol detox will normally take about 7–10 days. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances to detox from, so people with alcohol addiction should usually seek professional help to detox safely with medical care.

Sources

U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Drug Use and Addiction.” MedlinePlus, November 15, 2019. Accessed August 17, 2023.

Davies, Martin. “The role of GABAA receptors in mediating the effects of alcohol in the central nervous system.” Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, July 2003. Accessed August 17, 2023.

Gilpin, Nicholas W.; Koob, George F. “Neurobiology of Alcohol Dependence.” Alcohol Research and Health, 2008. Accessed August 17, 2023.

Food and Drug Administration. “Glossary of Terms.” November 14, 2017. Accessed August 17, 2023.

American Society of Addiction Medicine. “National Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Opioid Use Disorder.” December 18, 2019. Accessed August 17, 2023.

Kirby, Tristan; Barry, Adam E. “Alcohol as a gateway drug: a study of US 12th graders.” Journal of School Health, August 2012. Accessed August 17, 2023.

Bowling Green State University. “Alcohol Metabolism.” Accessed August 17, 2023.

American Heart Association. “Limiting Alcohol to Manage High Blood Pressure.” June 5, 2023. Accessed August 17, 2023.

Ballard, Harold S. “The Hematological Complications of Alcoholism.” Alcohol Health & Research World, 1997. Accessed August 17, 2023.

Dimmitt, S.B.; Rakic, V.; Puddey, I.B.; et al. “The effects of alcohol on coagulation and fibrinolytic factors: a controlled trial.” Blood Coagulation & Fibrinolysis, January 1998. Accessed August 17, 2023.

Costardi, João Victor Vezali; Nampo, Rafael Augusto Teruaki; Silva, Gabriella Lourenço; et al. “A review on alcohol: from the central action mechanism to chemical dependency.” Rev Assoc Med Brasileira, August 6, 2015. Accessed August 17, 2023.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Prescription Stimulants DrugFacts.” June 2018. Accessed August 17, 2023.

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