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 actually considered to be a drug1 because it causes both physical and mental changes.

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 negative effects and lead to addiction, even when it’s not severely misused.

The Science Behind Alcohol and Why We Drink It

Alcohol is the name given to 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 receptors2

GABA receptors suppress brain activity when activated, causing many physical effects. Your ability to balance, coordinate, talk and make rational judgments will all 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 that it takes to fully get rid of the ethanol in your bloodstream depends on how healthy and active your liver is and how much ethanol you have used. Alcohol is toxic to the body, so the process of breaking down ethanol will actually cause some damage to the liver.

Why Do People Drink Alcohol? 

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 dopamine3. Dopamine is released naturally by the brain as a response to pleasure, and it reinforces activities that cause pleasure to occur. 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 naturally release dopamine. 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.

Is Alcohol a Controlled Substance?

Controlled substances are drugs that are regulated by a law called the Controlled Substances Act4. This law regulates most medicines and recreational drugs, outlining which drugs require prescriptions, which drugs 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 aged 21 or older. Although alcohol is not a controlled substance, it was actually outlawed for a brief period known as Prohibition5.

Alcohol as a Gateway Drug

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 showed6 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 that stronger drugs may be used to enhance or maintain that same 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 a variety of negative effects. Further, the effects of alcohol grow as the substance is used over a long period of time. 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 to be a depressant drug.

Is alcohol poison?

Poison8 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 alcohol9 from your bloodstream varies based on how much alcohol you have used and your overall health. Generally speaking, alcohol will stay in your system for eight to 24 hours.

Does alcohol raise blood pressure?

Alcohol has been shown to raise blood pressure10. This is especially a concern when large amounts of alcohol are used or when your blood pressure is already higher than normal.

Does alcohol thin your blood?

Alcohol affects your platelets, making your blood less likely to coagulate11. It also affects how your body absorbs blood clots12. This makes it more likely that you will have serious blood clots when they do develop, even though your blood is thinner.

How does alcohol affect the brain?

Alcohol affects the brain in many ways13. When used, alcohol suppresses brain function and makes head injuries more likely. Nutritional deficits caused by alcohol use can cause a permanent form of 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 women who are pregnant.

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 seven to 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.

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Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more

  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Drug Use and Addiction.” MedlinePlus, November 26, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  2. Davies, Martin. “The role of GABAA receptors in mediating[…]ntral nervous system.” Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, July 2003. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  3. Gilpin, Nicholas W.; Koob, George F. “Neurobiology of Alcohol Dependence.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon[…]l, Drugs, and Health.” November 2016. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  5. “Prohibition.” January 27, 2020. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  6. Kirby, Tristan; Barry, Adam E. “Alcohol as a gateway drug: a study of US 12th graders.” Journal of School Health, August 2012. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” December 29, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Poisoning.” MedlinePlus, July 30, 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  9. Bowling Green State University. “Alcohol Metabolism.” 2021. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  10. American Heart Association. “Limiting Alcohol to Manage High Blood Pressure.” October 31, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  11. Ballard, Harold S. “The Hematological Complications of Alcoholism.” Alcohol Health & Research World, 1997. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  12. Dimmitt, S.B., Rakic, V., et al. “The effects of alcohol on coagulation an[…]: a controlled trial.” Blood Coagulation & Fibrinolysis, January 1998. Accessed January 5, 2022.
  13. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects On The Brain.” Alcohol Alert, October 2004. Accessed January 5, 2022.
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.