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Is Alcohol a Drug? [Understanding its Classification]
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Is Alcohol a Drug? [Understanding its Classification]

Written by Seth Fletcher on January 27, 2024
Medically reviewed by Dr. Chintan Shah
Last update: February 28, 2024

Alcohol is one of the world’s most commonly consumed substances. Due to its widespread availability and social acceptance, many people will be surprised to learn that alcohol is considered a drug. But is alcohol a drug, and what does this mean? CCFA explains the classification of alcohol as a drug and the impacts it can have on your health.

Key Takeaways

●  Alcohol is a drug despite its widespread use and social acceptance

●  Alcohol is a depressant, though it exerts stimulant action in small quantities

●  In large quantities, alcohol depresses the central nervous system and causes feelings of relaxation

●  Alcohol abuse can lead to severe physical and mental health consequences

●  Alcohol addiction is a serious condition that requires professional intervention

Why is Alcohol Considered a Drug?

Before one understands alcohol’s classification as a drug and what type of drug alcohol is, it is necessary first to know what makes a substance a drug. So, what is a drug? The World Health Organization defines a drug as any substance that, when taken into the body, alters its functioning in some way. This definition covers a wide range of substances, from over-the-counter or prescription medications to narcotics like opioids, cocaine, and even plants like marijuana and tobacco.

In light of this definition, alcohol is a drug because it can lead to changes in mood, behaviour, and physical function. Alcohol has depressant action as it slows down the central nervous system and reduces brain activity. However, the amount of alcohol consumed determines its effects on an individual. Most people take alcohol for its euphoric, stimulant effects, but at high doses, alcohol begins to exert depressant action.

At extremely high doses, alcohol causes even more severe depressant effects like analgesia, loss of consciousness, coma, or even death. So, is alcohol a depressant if it exerts stimulant and depressant action? Alcohol is classified as a depressant because it slows down brain functioning and neural activity and further suppresses the body’s vital functions. Taking more alcohol than the body is equipped to tolerate will always produce depressant action.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, the Canadian Centre for Addictions can help. At CCFA, we employ sophisticated addiction recovery strategies in an environment that inspires lasting change. Our team of addiction experts is always ready to assess your situation and guide you towards lasting recovery.

Why Isn’t It Illegal?

Alcohol is not illegal in Canada and many other places in the world because it’s used primarily for recreational purposes. While alcohol carries a potential for dependence and addiction, it’s not in the same category as narcotics.

Legalizing recreational drugs has always been a contentious legislative issue; however, there are laws and policies designed to reduce the risks and harms of alcohol. Each province and territory in Canada defines their legal drinking age. Alcohol use is illegal for those aged below 19 in all provinces in Canada except Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec, where the legal drinking age is 18.

Is Alcohol Addictive?

As widespread and socially acceptable as it is, alcohol remains one of the world’s most addictive drugs. Alcohol triggers the release of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that is associated with pleasure and reward. This action leads to euphoric sensations and cravings that encourage continued drinking. Alcohol also changes the brain’s structure and function over time, causing the brain to need alcohol for normal functioning.

The brain naturally releases dopamine as a reward for pleasurable activities. Alcohol use triggers more dopamine release than usual, and with repeated use, the brain begins to prioritize alcohol over naturally enjoyable activities like eating, sleeping, having sex, or engaging in a hobby. When the brain becomes reliant on alcohol for dopamine release, the individual will begin to experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if they stop using alcohol.

Side Effects of Alcohol Use

Like all drugs, alcohol can cause severe short and long-term health effects on your mind and body if abused.

Short-term Effects

Depending on the quantity of alcohol consumed, the short-term effects of alcohol use may include:

●  Headaches

●  Slurred speech

●  Drowsiness

●  Diarrhea

●  Vomiting

●  Impaired judgment

●  Breathing difficulties

●  Decreased perception and coordination

●  Hangovers

●  Blackouts (gaps in memory)

●  Alcohol poisoning

●  Anaemia

●  Coma

Long-term Effects

Prolonged and frequent alcohol use can lead to more lasting side effects such as:

●  Insomnia and sleep difficulties

●  Problems with memory and concentration

●  Sexual dysfunction

●  Unintentional injuries from falls, crashes, or burns

●  Liver disease and other forms of organ damage

●  Ulcers and cancers of the mouth and esophagus

●  Weakened immune system

●  Persistent changes in mood

●  Anxiety and irritability

●  Alcohol tolerance 

●  Dependence and addiction

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

Only a professional can definitively diagnose alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcohol addiction. However, seeing a few of the following signs of alcoholism could mean that someone has developed a severe drinking problem.

Drinking Alone

Individuals with a drinking problem tend to isolate themselves due to fear of judgment or stigma. If you notice a loved one increasingly spending time alone drinking, they may be dealing with alcohol addiction.

Having Intense Cravings for Alcohol

A person struggling with alcohol addiction will experience intense cravings whenever they cannot get alcohol. They may also avoid situations or events where there will be no alcohol. You may also see them spending time in circles that encourage their drinking behaviour.

Sudden Mood Swings

People with alcohol addiction may exhibit sudden mood swings due to alcohol’s impact on the brain. It is not unusual to see them suddenly switch from happiness to sadness and vice-versa within short periods.

Reckless Behaviour

Alcohol use lowers inhibitions, impairs judgment and makes a person more prone to reckless and impulsive behaviour. They may drive while drunk, get into fights, or engage in activities that put them and others at risk.

Tolerance and Dependence

The brain adapts to continued alcohol use, making the user need more alcohol to get the same effects. This phenomenon is known as tolerance. Continued alcohol use after one has built tolerance will lead to dependence, a situation where the individual needs alcohol for normal functioning.

Increased Fatigue and Depression

Alcohol is a depressant that slows down the nervous system, and this can lead to feelings of fatigue. It also triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to feelings of depression in chronic users.

Experiencing Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol causes the increased release of neurotransmitters that provide its euphoric and calming effects. Over time, the brain adapts to the increased neurotransmitter levels and considers it the new normal. When a person stops or reduces their alcohol use, they experience a host of physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness, tremors, and seizures.

Bloodshot Eyes

Alcohol dilates blood vessels, causing increased blood flow to the skin’s surface. This increased blood flow leads to redness in the eyes and face, a condition known as an alcohol flush reaction. Alcohol can also cause dehydration and inflammation of the conjunctiva, giving the eyes a swollen and bloodshot appearance.

Other signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction include:

●  Tremors

●  Slurred speech

●  Unsteady gait

●  Jaundice (yellowing of eyes and skin)

●  Nystagmus (uncontrolled eye movement)

●  Erectile dysfunction

●  Rapid heart rate

●  Social and financial issues due to alcohol use

Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal refers to the unpleasant symptoms experienced when an alcohol-dependent person tries to stop or reduce their alcohol use. The severity of withdrawal symptoms usually depends on how long and how much an individual has been drinking. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may be physical or behavioural. They include:

●  Sweating

●  Tremors

●  Increased heart rate

●  Nausea

●  Anxiety

●  Fatigue

●  Sleeping difficulties

●  Hallucinations

Individuals with severe alcohol withdrawal may experience delirium tremens (DT), a life-threatening medical emergency. Delirium tremens is a severe condition that can lead to confusion, disorientation, seizures, and autonomic hyperactivity.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms manifest within a few hours after the last drink. The alcohol withdrawal timeline varies from person to person but generally follows a similar pattern. The first stage, which occurs within a few hours of stopping drinking, is known as the “crash” or “hangover” stage. This stage is marked by anxiety, irritability, sweating, and tremors.

The second or “rebound” stage begins within 24 to 48 hours and is characterized by increased anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia. The third or “protracted” withdrawal stage starts after 48 hours and can last weeks to months, depending on the individual’s circumstances.

Alcohol Abuse and Addiction Treatment

Alcohol abuse and addiction treatment is effective when it is designed to meet the specific needs of the patient. Effective alcohol abuse and addiction treatment typically involves one or a combination of the following treatment options:

Medical Detox

Medical detox helps to rid your body of all traces of alcohol. The goal of detox in this situation is to help manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms safely. The detox experience will depend on the duration and frequency of drinkers. Healthcare personnel may also prescribe medications to control withdrawal symptoms during the detox process.

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehab is an intensive treatment option for severe cases of addiction. People with severe alcohol addiction or life-threatening withdrawal symptoms will be admitted to the treatment facility for round-the-clock supervision.

Outpatient Rehab

People with alcohol addiction undergoing outpatient rehab will live at home or in a sober living environment while keeping regular appointments with their doctors. This treatment option is ideal for patients who do not require constant monitoring and are highly motivated to get better. People with addiction undergoing outpatient rehab need a reliable support network of family and/or friends to help with their recovery.

Counselling

Counselling for alcohol addiction involves a combination of strategies like motivational interviewing (MI) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT helps people with addiction to identify and change negative thoughts and behaviours that may be contributing to their addiction. Motivational interviewing helps them to develop the motivation to change their drinking habits. Counselling sessions are held individually or in groups with a counsellor or therapist who guides them towards recovery.

Support

Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery provide a safe and non-judgmental space for people dealing with addiction to share their experiences and receive support from others in similar situations.

Aftercare Treatment

Addiction is tough to beat, and many people will suffer relapses on the journey to complete recovery. Aftercare keeps individuals connected to their treatment team and helps them stay on the recovery course even if they relapse.

When to Consult a Medical Professional

Seeing a few of the following signs indicates that you or a loved one need to seek professional help for alcohol abuse or addiction:

●  Using alcohol in greater amounts than intended

●  Trying and failing to stop using alcohol

●  Having intense cravings to drink

●  Spending a great deal of time using and recovering from alcohol’s effects

●  Decreased productivity at work or school due to alcohol use

●  Continued alcohol use despite negative consequences on one’s health, finances, or relationships

●  Needing increased quantities of alcohol to get the same effects – tolerance

●  Becoming alcohol-dependent; unable to go about your daily activities without drinking

●  Frequently getting into dangerous situations because of alcohol use (such as driving, swimming, or operating machinery)

●  Continued drinking even when it makes you depressed, anxious or leads to another health problem

●  Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you cease or reduce alcohol use

Conclusion

While alcohol is not considered a drug by most people, it can be just as harmful and addictive as any other substance. Alcohol abuse and addiction can have severe consequences for your physical and mental health. It is essential to be aware of the dangers and seek help immediately if you think you or your loved one is struggling with a drinking-related problem.The Canadian Centre for Addiction helps people understand their addictions and healthier coping mechanisms by engaging them in one-on-one counselling with certified counsellors, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals. Call 1-855-499-9446 to learn more about how we treat alcohol abuse and addiction.

FAQ

Is beer a drug?

Technically, beer is not classified as a drug. However, most beers contain alcohol and can impact cognition, emotions, and perception. They can also cause dependence and addiction if abused, so one can technically refer to beer as a drug.

Is alcoholism genetic?

Alcohol use disorder has a strong genetic component. Research indicates about 40% to 60% of an individual’s addiction risk may be linked to their genes.

What disorder do most alcoholics have?

Alcoholism often co-occurs with other mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or personality disorders. Each disorder affects alcohol use disorder differently, depending on the severity of the disorder.

Is alcohol a narcotic?

No. Alcohol is not a narcotic but a psychoactive drug. Narcotics are drugs that relieve pain and often induce sleep. Alcohol does not fall into this category because it is not primarily used for pain relief. Instead, alcohol is considered a depressant because it slows down the nervous system and causes feelings of relaxation.

Does alcohol affect intelligence?

Yes. Alcohol can affect intelligence. Research has shown alcohol can impair cognitive development. This study found that heavy drinking can lead to a loss of brain volume and cognitive impairment, particularly in areas of the brain associated with memory and decision-making.

In what age group is alcoholism most common?

The age group with the highest rate of alcohol use disorder in Canada (AUD) is adults aged 24 to 44, according to the Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms (CSUCH) project. In this age group, the estimated prevalence of AUD is 6.3%. The next highest age group is adults aged 45 to 64, with a prevalence of 5.7%. The lowest rates of AUD are found in adults aged 15 to 24.

Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

Dr. Chintan is a Board Certified Family Physician with an interest in holistic and preventative care as well as healthcare systems. Credentialed Physician with both American & Canadian Board of Family Medicine. Adjunct Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Telemedicine clinician.

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