Booze is pretty widely known as a depressant. And there’s certainly been no shortage of crying in beers since the dawn of fermentation. But what about all those times when you’ve got a good buzz on and feel perfectly content? How is alcohol a depressant in that scenario?
Well, depending on how you look at it, it’s not — not at the start anyway. When alcohol is referred to as a depressant, it doesn’t literally mean that it makes you depressed. Rather, it’s that alcohol slows down numerous bodily functions — namely, heart rate and blood flow. So while plenty of people do indeed feel sad when drinking, the depressant effects of alcohol on the brain primarily refer to the cognitive decline it induces.
Even one drink can bring about these effects, though you may not notice them. This is largely because particularly when we have that first drink, the chemicals in our brain override the alcohol’s depressant qualities. To be more scientific-y about it, the ethanol in the alcohol triggers the parts of the brain that release dopamine, which, of course, is that fun little neurotransmitter that dictates what feels good. Essentially, the rush of dopamine is telling our bodies that it’s experiencing a little reward.
Sadly, though, it doesn’t last. Some studies have found that the dopamine boost lingers until our blood alcohol content is just under the legal limit of .08, while others have found that our dopamine levels return to normal about 90 minutes after the initial surge. It doesn’t matter that the ethanol levels in the body continue to rise; after this point, the depressing shit takes over.
Naturally, there’s some variance from person to person — e.g., a 2018 study found that people with a family history of alcoholism release extra dopamine simply from the expectation of alcohol. And among those who struggle with substance issues, it’s often the release of dopamine that fosters their dependence.
Whatever your personal case may be, it’s always good to know how alcohol is fucking with your head. In particular, once you know that your brain probably isn’t going to release any more of the fun stuff, you might be able to be a little more mindful of your consumption.
Otherwise, all of those tears are gonna water-down your beer.