Alcohol: Is It A Drug?

Yes, alcohol is a drug. Specifically, alcohol is a Psychotropic Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressant. Being a “psychotropic” drug means alcohol has an impact on cognition, emotions, and perception. Alcohol shares this designation with many other well-known drugs, such as Marijuana, Cocaine, and LSD. Being a CNS Depressant means that alcohol slows the activity of the brain; it also shares this trait with many other drugs such as Ambien, Xanax, and Valium.

Part of the reason some mistakenly don’t consider alcohol to be a drug is because of how normalized the consumption of alcohol is. Another reason is because of the way the phrase “drugs and alcohol” has entered the lexicon; the phrase misleadingly implies that alcohol is not itself a drug. In fact, some special interest groups have even lobbied for replacing the phrase “drugs and alcohol” with “alcohol and other drugs” so that it’s clear that alcohol belongs in the latter category.

How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain?

Alcohol acts in a manner similar to GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, one of the brain’s neurotransmitters. GABA stops the cells of the brain from communicating with each other as much, works to lower anxiety, and helps promote sleep (which is one reason those who drink alcohol may find themselves nodding off after tossing a few back.)

But alcohol has other effects on the brain as well; it affects a multitude of neurotransmitters and pleasure chemicals in a way that tends to reinforce its own use. As Neuropharmacology Professor George F. Koob summarizes: “Alcohol tends to activate the whole reward system.” This is one reason drinking alcohol can feel good, and why those who become addicted to the substance may lose interest in other activities they once found enjoyable.

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What Are The Side Effects Of Alcohol?

Like many drugs, alcohol comes with a long list of side effects. Drinking too much alcohol may result in short term effects such as:

  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Impaired sense of balance
  • Loss of motor control
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Intensified emotions
  • Alcohol poisoning, which can lead to death

While users may experience the above symptoms while intoxicated, long-term effects on the body occur as well. Alcohol is a carcinogen, meaning it causes cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol use can result in cancer “of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum.” Alcohol also impairs the immune system, which could make one more vulnerable to harmful viruses and bacteria.

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As A Drug, Does Alcohol Have Any Medicinal Properties?

Alcohol’s status as a drug lends itself to the idea that alcohol may have a variety of medicinal applications. Historically, alcohol has indeed been used medicinally with 13th-century English scholar Roger Bacon once writing that drinking alcohol has the ability to “preserve the stomach, strengthen the natural heat, help digestion, defend the body from corruption, concoct the food till it be turned into very blood.”

Scientists today may not be as glowing about the possible benefits of alcohol, but do concede there could be some upsides when it comes to the drinker’s health. Opinion is split; some authorities claim that alcohol isn’t safe at any amount, while others suggest that alcohol could increase longevity by mitigating the risk of heart disease.

Overall any claims that alcohol can treat an illness are more the stuff of folklore than of hard science. However, there could be some evidence to suggest that antioxidants in wine help give the immune system a boost, with an article in The New York Times reporting that, “although moderate drinking will not cure colds, it can help keep them at bay.”

If It’s A Drug, Why Isn’t Alcohol Illegal?

While alcohol is illegal in many parts of the world, especially Muslim-majority countries, other areas including America, have a long history of alcohol use. Part of the reason for alcohol’s legality is because usage dates back thousands of years, and because alcohol has become heavily associated with ceremony across cultures and centuries.

Alcohol was once illegal in the United States. Prohibition, as the time period was known, lasted from 1920 to 1933. The ban on alcohol didn’t last very long because of the way organized criminal activity was empowered by its illegality; there was now a new black market for gangsters and bootleggers to exploit and profit from. Harmful versions of alcohol were also unleashed on the public during this time. The states become aware of just how much money they were losing in potential tax revenue due to restricted sales of alcohol. Because of multiple motives somewhat similar to those behind Marijuana legalization in more modern times, alcohol became a legal drug once again.

Getting Clean Of Drugs Like Alcohol

Despite its pervasiveness and a degree of popular misconception to the contrary, alcohol is indeed a drug, and one with many different harmful effects at that. If you or someone you know if struggling with alcohol abuse, learn the warning signs and get help. Drinking too much literally kills. By reaching out to a treatment provider who can help, you can get your questions about treatment options and rehab centers answered.

You don’t have to wait until the problem becomes unmanageable. Your future self will only thank you for taking action now, so don’t hesitate to contact a treatment provider.

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If you or a loved one is ready to overcome an alcohol addiction, reach out today. Treatment providers can connect you with programs that provide the tools to help you get and stay sober.