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How Alcohol Affects The Brain

As is widely known, alcohol affects the way our brain works. However, for those of you wondering exactly how it does this, we have put together a summary, based on medical and scientific evidence, of what it does to the body; whether it is a stimulant or a depressant, and how alcohol affects the brain.

Most people will think that alcohol acts as a stimulant, increasing one’s heart rate and overall energy levels, while decreasing inhibitions. However true to an extent, this is far from the full story.

While it does initially have a stimulating effect, alcohol is primarily a depressant. This means that, after a certain threshold is consumed, and especially over prolonged periods of use it slows down your entire body.

The degree to which alcohol affects the brain will depend on a few factors. Primarily, it depends on your individual body chemistry. Second, it also depends on how much alcohol you ingest. Last in determining how alcohol affects the brain—but by no means least—is your own tolerance level in relation to it.

In practical terms, this last point means that if you are a heavy drinker, you will have a high tolerance and need greater amounts to feel its effects. If you are an occasional drinker, you will need proportionately less. 

When consumed in small or moderate quantities, alcohol gives your brain a signal to release dopamine. Produced in what is known as the brain’s reward system, dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and well-being in the body, which has the overall effect of making you feel energized and stimulated.

Because of this partly stimulant effect of alcohol, which initially increases the heart rate, it can also lead to feelings of aggression in some individuals, which is a common side effect of stimulants.

The point at which alcohol becomes a stimulant is when the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches levels of 0.05mg/l.

If greater quantities are consumed, and the BAC rises to 0.08mg/l, the effects of alcohol become depressant. This is the level above which one is over the legal limit for driving in the UK.  

It should be noted that the effects alcohol produces will vary considerably depending on several different factors, such as body weight, the amount consumed, gender, alcohol tolerance and the dose itself.

To get a clearer understanding of how many drinks you would need to reach the legal limit for BAC, you may use any number of online BAC calculators.

Also, whether alcohol has a more stimulating or depressant effect also varies largely depending on the individual. Furthermore, it is thought, based on scientific research, that those who experience alcohol as more of a stimulant than a sedative are at greater risk for developing an addiction to it. 

Although stimulants and depressants will affect both your brain function as well as your nervous system, how each one does this is different.

By definition, stimulants excite and accelerate your nervous system. They do this by increasing both blood pressure and heart rate. If consumed in high doses, they can cause anxiety, restlessness, impulsivity and even insomnia.

Some examples of prescription stimulants include medications such as Dexedrine, Adderall or Ritalin. In terms of legal stimulants, any drink with caffeine or taurine is considered a stimulant. Illegal drugs that are in the stimulant category will include cocaine, crack, MDMA, methamphetamines, and speed.

Depressants, on the other hand, will work by slowing down your metabolism, thereby decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure. By inhibiting the function of the central nervous system, they are among the most widely abused class of drugs. Their symptoms include drowsiness, relaxation, anaesthesia, sleep, and in excessive quantities, even coma or death.

The way alcohol affects the brain puts it in the class of depressants, along with prescription opioids and benzodiazepines.

Some of the more widely used illegal depressants include drugs such as heroin, Fentanyl, and GHB. It is particularly dangerous to mix alcohol with other depressant drugs, as the risk of overdose or coma is much higher. 

Following its initial action as a stimulant, alcohol will slow your central nervous system down, decreasing your blood pressure, heart rate and mental clarity.

After ingesting large quantities of alcohol, it is common to have slower reaction times, and one may feel sedated or even disoriented.

In terms of the way alcohol affects the brain, higher doses over prolonged periods of time can lead to the suppression of dopamine production, the absence of which will lead to feelings of sadness, and even depression. This can also result in chronic changes in behaviour, such as escalated use, high tolerance, compulsive behaviour and dependence.

Once you have ingested over the BAC limit of 0.08mg/l, alcohol’s depressant effects begin to make themselves known. Anything over 0.2mg/l, and its effects on the respiratory system become so overpowering for the body that they can cause coma and even death. 

While it is true that ibogaine has had proven success in treating alcohol addiction, here at Ibogaine Treatment UK (a subsidiary of Tabula Rasa RetreatTM) there are important considerations to be aware of before choosing ibogaine as a viable treatment for alcohol.

When it comes to ibogaine treatments for opiate addictions, we will always begin treating patients as soon as they are in withdrawal.

With alcohol, this is not the case. If you are addicted to alcohol in such a way as you suffer withdrawals or seizures (delirium tremens), know that it is essential that you go through a medically assisted alcohol withdrawal (if necessary) first, before admission to our centre.

The reason for this is that severe alcohol withdrawal interferes with cardiac function, to the extent that it will most certainly cause further cardiac issues when ibogaine is administered.

For this reason—for your own safety—we urge you to speak to your GP first, to find the best way to wean yourself off alcohol a few weeks in advance of any ibogaine treatment with us.