The short answer to the question “is alcohol a stimulant?” is no. However, please read on, because in answering this question more fully, I stumbled upon research showing that certain types of drinking can result in stimulant-like effects.
Alcohol is a depressant and would never be classified as a stimulant of any kind, scientifically speaking. However, it is important to note that alcohol, and drugs in general, can affect people in different ways. When we talk about alcohol as a mood-altering drug, we are referring mainly to ethanol. Ethanol is a central nervous system depressant, which definitively answers the question posed in the title, but there are some other important points that we can add here. The Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine tells us, “Ethanol is only one of several types of alcohol, but it is the only type of alcohol that is found in alcoholic beverages or commonly used for recreational purposes; other alcohols such as methanol and isopropyl alcohol are significantly more toxic.” This is important because there have been many cases of people consuming other types of alcohol in order to become intoxicated, but anyone engaging in that practice is simply risking death from poisoning.
In a research study called “Stimulant and sedative effects of alcohol” researchers Hendler, Ramchandani, and Gilman found that many people can have stimulant-like effects from alcohol in small doses. The amount to bring on these effects might be only one or two drinks for some people, and according to that study the effects include “euphoria and relaxation; people experiencing these symptoms tend to become talkative and less inhibited, and may exhibit poor judgment.” For other people, and for all people who drink greater quantities, intoxication is the overall effect, and this usually includes more depressant-like effects, including slurred speech, drowsiness, and slower reaction times. All these effects make it easier to understand why drinking and driving have been so incredibly deadly. Alcohol makes it much harder to drive safely, but as Hendler et al. noted, it can also cause poor judgment, leading people to make the mistake of driving drunk more often.
Maybe most importantly, people who may choose to consume alcohol recreationally should know that there are many factors, some not so obvious, that can change the way alcohol affects the body. Bodyweight is probably the most widely known variable for how strongly alcohol will affect someone, with a lighter person needing to drink less to reach intoxication. Sex is also a key variable that has been studied, and alcohol does indeed affect men and women differently because of differences in body fat and water content. According to alcohol.org, women will become more intoxicated from drinking the same amount, because men have more water in their bodies, so women will reach a higher blood alcohol content if all other variables are equal. On the lesser-known side of the spectrum, genetic variations in individuals have been shown to affect how the body reacts to alcohol, meaning that everyone should be careful and well-informed because simple hear-say information from other people will not even begin to cover all the intricacies of this topic.
By Tim Cannon
Collins SE, Kirouac M (2013). “Alcohol Consumption”. Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine: 61–65. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-1005-9_626. ISBN 978-1-4419-1004-2.
Hendler RA, Ramchandani VA, Gilman J, Hommer DW (2013). “Stimulant and sedative effects of alcohol”. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences. 13: 489–509. doi:10.1007/7854_2011_135. ISBN 978-3-642-28719-0. PMID 21560041.
“What Is a Safe Level of Drinking?”. alcohol.org. 15 March 2019. Retrieved 5 April 2019.