Alcohol share many of the attributes and features that are generally seen or experienced with many drugs. And yet, most people hardly ever consider it to be a drug due to its legal status and widespread acceptance. Alcohol has been an accepted part of many cultures, societies, and traditions. And drinking is a norm in many social settings, rituals, and ceremonies.
While alcohol is generally used for recreational purposes, the excessive use of this substance has been identified as a major risk factor for chronic health conditions and one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the U.S.
Considering the consequences of alcohol consumption, it brings us back to the question people most often wonder, “Is alcohol a drug?”
What Is a Drug?
It might be necessary to define what a drug is in order to answer this question. A drug is characterized in pharmacology as a substance that induces changes in the brain’s psychology or physiology when ingested.
People use drugs for two primary purposes: medical or recreational reasons. A substance’s effect on brain activity is the most important element when classifying a substance as a drug. However, there are also other factors to consider, such as:
- The manner in which the substance is consumed
- The reason for ingesting the substance
- The substance’s origin
- The substance’s addictive properties
- The substance’s impact on the brain or central nervous system
Now that we understand the meaning of “drugs,” let’s take a closer look at what “alcohol” is.
What Is Alcohol?
Alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) is one of the most widely used substances in the world. It is produced through the fermentation of grains, fruits, or other sources of sugars and is the main ingredient in wine, beer, and liquor. It plays an important social role in various communities, and thousands of people habitually indulge in it to socialize, relax, and celebrate. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), around 85.6 percent of adults aged 18 and older admitted to drinking at some point in their lives.
The relationship with alcohol is different for different people. While some like to enjoy a glass of wine or beer, occasionally others tend to have an unhealthy relationship with it.
How Does Alcohol Work?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that increases the production of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and weakens the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. This means that consuming large quantities of the substance can bring about depressant effects and slow down brain functions, neural activity, and various other vital functions of the body.
But these substances also have a stimulant effect when consumed in lower doses. The initial dose signals the release of dopamine, commonly known as the “feel-good hormone,” and causes you to feel energized and stimulated. It can also increase your heart rate and lead to aggression in some people, which are some of the characteristics of stimulants. Stimulant effects usually arise when your blood alcohol content is around 0.05 mg/l but can soon be replaced by the depressant effects once your BAC reaches 0.08 mg/l. This is the level at which you are regarded as legally impaired.
It’s worth noting that the effects of alcoholic drinks vary from one person to another and are influenced by a number of factors.
Some of the factors that influence the effects of alcohol are:
- Body chemistry
- Physical and mental health
- Medical conditions
- The use of other drugs or medications
- Level of tolerance
The Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol affects the brain quite rapidly. Some of the immediate effects of consuming small amounts of an alcoholic drink are:
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Heightened mood
Some of the immediate effects of consuming large quantities of alcoholic drinks are:
- Delayed reaction time
- Impaired cognitive functions
- Slurred speech
- Unsteady gait
- Lack of coordination or motor skills
- Distorted perceptions
- Reduced inhibitions
- Impaired judgment
While the short-term effects of drinking are alarming, the long-term drinking effects are even more disturbing.
Engaging in heavy drinking or binge drinking over a prolonged period of time can cause adverse effects such as:
- Alcohol hepatitis
- Loss of memory
- Loss of cognition
- Loss of grey and white matter in the brain
- Liver fibrosis
- High blood pressure
Is Alcohol a Drug?
Now that it’s quite clear what alcohol is and what it does to the body, it’s now time to answer the question, “Is alcohol a drug?”
Going by the definition of a drug, it’s safe to say that alcohol falls into the same classification as most other drugs. It’s a CNS depressant that affects almost all neural pathways. And changes how the brain works and affects how you think, feel, and behave. It’s also addictive like most illicit drugs.
When you indulge in excessive drinking over a long period of time, your brain chemicals change and cause you to form a physical dependence on the substance. This physical dependence may eventually lead you into developing an alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a brain disease that is characterized by the inability to stop or control drinking despite the adverse health, occupational and social consequences.
The abrupt cessation of this substance can also trigger a disturbing withdrawal phase similar to most other illicit drugs after a prolonged period of use. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) can include both physical and psychological symptoms such as:
- Hand tremors
- Delirium tremors
Individuals who consume huge doses of a specific drug or a combination of illicit drugs may suffer a condition called overdose. The same goes for drinking. Drinking at dangerous levels can overload the body with toxic substances and result in an overdose, also known as alcohol poisoning. Overdoses are a medical emergency. So it’s important that you contact emergency services right away if you or someone you care about faces the following symptoms:
- Slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
- Irregular breathing (a gap of more than 10 seconds between breaths)
- Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
- Low body temperature (hypothermia)
- Passing out (unconsciousness) and can’t be awakened
In conclusion, alcohol is indeed a drug that affects a person’s brain, body, and life in much of the same way other drugs do. In fact, it can even be considered a more dangerous drug than the others due to its widespread acceptance and less regulated nature.
How to Battle Alcoholism?
Battling the disease of AUD is just as hard as overcoming an addiction to illicit drugs such as heroin or cocaine, as the withdrawal symptoms can be quite intense. Some of the withdrawal symptoms can even be life-threatening. So if you wish to overcome substance use disorder or AUD, seek professional support to establish long-term recovery. There are many addiction professionals and treatment programs currently available to help you in this recovery journey.
Most addiction treatment programs start with a medically assisted detox program to help you flush out the toxic substances from your body. Medication-assisted treatment programs utilize FDA-approved medications in conjunction with behavioral therapies to address the physical aspect of dependence and safely overcome withdrawal symptoms. After the successful completion of alcohol detox, you will be required to enroll in an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation program to address the psychological aspect of dependence through counseling and therapies. Aftercare programs are also vital in maintaining sobriety and prolonging recovery.
Now that we understand the true nature of alcohol, it’s best to take a closer look at our own drinking habits and how it’s affecting our health and wellbeing. If you or someone you love is struggling with AUD or any other forms of substance use disorders, Futures Recovery Healthcare is here to help. Our compassionate substance abuse treatment programs provide multiple pathways to a prolonged recovery. So start your journey with us today.