The other day I was drinking with a bunch of nerds, as I prefer to do, and one such nerd tried to convince me that hard alcohol differs from wine and beer not only in alcohol content but also that it acts as a stimulant rather than a depressant. This seemed a rather strange statement as I have definitely felt “stimulant” effects from both beer and wine on occasion. I’ve always wondered why we learned that alcohol is a depressant back in health class, when tequila clearly isn’t. How can alcohol act as both a stimulant and a depressant? Why am I suddenly getting sleepy when I was so energetic before?
The answer begins to unravel (along with your inhibitions) when that shot is poured down your esophagus. Almost immediately your body makes metabolizing the alcohol in your system a priority. Most people believe that alcohol is metabolized as sugar, because that’s what it’s made from; however, unlike protein, fat, and carbohydrates/sugar, alcohol can’t be stored in our body. It is therefore metabolized first.
In your stomach, about 20% of the alcohol can be absorbed directly into your blood stream. From there it travels into your brain. The rest of the alcohol travels to the small intestines, where it is absorbed along with other nutrients. The liver is the primary site for alcohol oxidation, which is why excessive drinking can lead to liver problems.
Alcohol’s classification as a depressant is outdated. Stimulants often influence dopamine and norepinephrine. Depressants often stimulate GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which works to reduce neuronal excitability throughout the central nervous system. Research has found that alcohol actually works on both.
Alcohol can act as either a stimulant or a depressant depending on whether your BAC is rising or falling. Drinking both increases norepinephrine as well as acts at GABA receptors. This could explain alcohol’s effects as both a stimulant and a depressant. A less common type of GABA receptor contains a delta subunit, which responds only to low levels of alcohol, such as a beer or a glass of wine. This could explain both the depressant effects of drinking wine/beer slowly as well as the depressant effects you feel as your BAC decreases.
So in conclusion there was some truth to what my friend argued. Your body does react differently to different types of alcohol, but it has more to do with the amount of alcohol in your blood stream than anything else.