Is Alcohol a Drug?

Go into almost any supermarket, or even corner shop, in the UK and you’re likely to find a decent selection of alcoholic drinks available to purchase.

Equally, every pub, most restaurants, and even some cafes serve alcoholic beverages, from beers to wines to spirits.

Unlike in America, if you’re over 18 you’re legally entitled to purchase and consume alcohol without any restrictions.

But, is it a drug?

Many people don’t consider alcohol to be a drug because it’s so commonly consumed across the UK and many other places across the world. However, that is because of how alcohol is perceived, rather than the reality.

In fact, alcohol is classified as a drug, because of the physiological impact it has on a person when consumed.

If it’s a Drug, Why isn’t Alcohol Illegal?


The word ‘drug’ carries associations with criminality and rule-breaking. Largely, this is because the production, distribution, and consumption of drugs like cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and others are illegal in the UK.

However, alcohol is a legal and regulated drug.

There are lots of substances that are classified as drugs which aren’t illegal. For example, something that many people drink every day is coffee, because of the pick-me-up effect it has: this effect actually occurs because it is a stimulant drug.

While many people think of law-breaking and illicit activity when they hear the word ‘drug’ this isn’t an accurate representation of what drugs are, and alcohol falls into the category of drugs that are so commonplace that lots of people don’t fully understand that they are indeed drugs.

Many people argue that if alcohol didn’t have such a huge and ingrained part to play in society, it would be illegal like many illicit drugs.

This is because alcohol actually has a very dramatic impact on the body and its functions, and can cause a lot of long-term health problems.

In fact, alcohol-related illnesses and the impacts of alcohol abuse actually costs the UK’s healthcare system, the NHS, up to a whopping £3.4 billion a year. To put that into perspective that’s almost 10% of the UK’s entire annual budget for defence spending.

While alcohol is a legal drug, as research has increasingly examined the long-term effects of the drug on the human body, it has become recognised that there should be some guidelines in place for the consumption of alcohol in order to protect public health.

What are the Current UK Guidelines on Alcohol Consumption?

Following the most current research and evidence, the UK’s chief medical officer sets guidelines for alcohol consumption.

While it is acknowledged that any extent of alcohol consumption might have some negative health impacts, these guidelines set a realistic target, which shouldn’t be exceeded, for many people. As a legal drug, alcohol benefits from having official consumption guidelines.

Currently, the guidelines for alcohol consumption in the UK state that it is advised that you should not consume more than 14 units of alcohol per week and that the consumption of these 14 units should be spread over three days or more to avoid binge drinking.

The guidelines are currently the same for men and women, though it is acknowledged that women generally feel the impact of alcohol more quickly than men, and with less alcohol consumed, due to differences in body composition and the proportion of muscle mass.

What Type of Drug is Alcohol?


Alcohol is classified as a depressant. This is because it slows down the functions of the brain, reduces the speed of neural activity, and also causes the speed of other bodily functions (such as heart rate) to decline.

Alcohol has this impact on the body because the intake of the drug causes an increased production of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, and this an inhibitory neurotransmitter.

When alcohol is consumed it enters the bloodstream and is taken to the brain, before being processed by the liver. When someone drinks a lot of alcohol, it results in depressant effects which include:

  • A slowed-down reaction speed
  • Impaired cognitive functioning
  • A reduction in hand-eye coordination and motor skills
  • A reduction in inhibitions and social barriers
  • A sedative effect

Other Effects of Alcohol Consumption

While alcohol is officially classified as a depressant drug, it also has stimulant effects (like caffeine) which will occur depending on the amount of alcohol that is consumed, and the speed with which it is consumed.

If alcohol is only consumed in small quantities, for example, one beer, or one shot of vodka, it is actually more likely to result in stimulant effects than depressant effects.

When people drink alcohol in order to get drunk, these stimulant effects are often the desired effects that they’re chasing.

The stimulant effects that occur as a result of alcohol consumption can include:

  • Increased confidence
  • Giddiness
  • Improvement in mood
  • Increased heart rate

Some people are more likely to achieve these stimulant responses, rather than depressant responses than others. For these people, the consumption of alcohol carries a greater risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with the substance, and an alcohol use disorder.

What is an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol addiction

An alcohol use disorder is a medical category that people fall into when they have been diagnosed as having a clinically recognised negative relationship with alcohol.

Alcohol use disorders include alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, and alcohol addiction.

Understanding the differences between AUDs can be difficult, but it can be helpful to recognise that everyone with alcohol addiction is suffering from an AUD, but not everyone with an AUD has clinically defined alcohol addiction.

Alcohol abuse, for example, could be regular binge drinking with regular bouts of en bloc blackouts or alcohol poisoning – but not necessarily addiction.

Why is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is a common form of addiction because the consumption of alcohol is so prevalent across the UK and alcohol is an addictive drug.

The reasons why alcohol is addictive are vital to understanding, in order to understand and empathise with alcoholism and the people who live with it.

The drug is psychologically addictive because it is so easy for it to become a crutch, and create learned behaviour between the way you feel before and after the consumption of alcohol.

For example, if you work a very stressful job or have a very stressful and difficult home life, you might find that you reach for alcohol as a coping mechanism to help deal with stress and relax.

This works because the drug is a depressant, and generally triggers a relaxed response. This can create a learned behaviour – alcohol will make me feel better after a stressful day – which can quickly become an ingrained habit.

What is Alcoholism?

This ingrained habit can develop into alcoholism. Alcoholism is a broadly defined health condition which is characterised by uncontrollable impulses, urges, and cravings for alcohol, even when fulfilling those desires has a destructive social effect.

It is also characterised by the presence of serious withdrawal symptoms in the absence of consumption.

Together, these cravings and withdrawal symptoms related to alcohol can be defined as alcoholism, which can be a hugely destructive addiction.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Woman sleeping

When someone is living with alcoholism and they decide to try to reduce their alcohol intake or cut alcohol out of their life completely, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.

Like many other drugs, the withdrawal symptoms connected with alcohol addiction are both physical and psychological.

Some of the most common forms of alcohol withdrawal symptoms are:

  • Tremors and shakes
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • The onset of feelings of anxiety or depression
  • Insomnia and general feelings of discomfort
  • In extreme cases, seizures

Seizures are the most serious withdrawal symptom that is related to alcoholism because of the chance that it can progress to Delirium tremens (DT). DT is characterised by a serious alteration to a person’s mental state and can be fatal if not treated correctly.

For these reasons, if someone with alcoholism is attempting to break their addiction by lessening their alcohol consumption or going ‘cold turkey’, it is instead recommended that they seek the support of a rehab centre where they can receive professional medical advice.

This is important because the withdrawal effects from alcoholism can be so severe.

The Dangers of Alcohol & Alcohol Addiction

New research suggests that alcohol consumption at any level has a negative impact on well-being when compared with someone who doesn’t consume alcohol at all.

However, it is also widely understood that when consumed in small quantities, infrequently the negative effect of alcohol is limited.

Sticking to the guidance set out by the UK’s chief medical officer should allow you to drink alcohol without the worst impacts that the drug has on your health.

Some research has even suggested that moderate levels of alcohol consumption can have some health benefits, though it is generally agreed that the risks associated with the development of AUDs and other conditions outweigh any potential health benefits.

So, what are the negative impacts of alcohol on mental and physical well-being?

The short-term impact of drinking too much alcohol is at its worst after and during binge drinking and alcohol poisoning. These can result in:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Blackouts
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Irregular breathing
  • Irregular heart rate

However, the excessive consumption of alcohol also has long-term impacts on health, especially in how it relates to the functioning of our organs and other physical health conditions. The long-term risks of the consistent excessive consumption of alcohol can include:

  • Liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • Fatty liver
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Throat, mouth, liver, and bowel cancer
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis

The risks that are associated with the short-term and long-term risks of excessive alcohol use are exaggerated by alcohol addiction, but it is also people with alcohol addiction who find it most difficult to control their consumption.

How Does Alcohol Link with Mental Health?

Person looking sad

As well as the impacts on physical health, researchers have also considered how alcohol is related to our mental well-being, mental health, and the development of various mental health disorders.

People with mental health disorders like clinical depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, are more likely to have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and consume it in an unhealthy way, potentially leading to the development of AUD and alcoholism.

This is because alcohol is commonly used as a form of self-medication for various mental health conditions.

Because of its depressant qualities, it can temporarily numb feelings of tension in people with anxiety, reduce feelings of sadness in people with depression, and make manic episodes of bipolar disorder seem more manageable.

In this way, people find that alcohol is used as a crutch to deal with the symptoms of mental health conditions.

However, research shows that the consumption of alcohol is linked with an increase in negative feelings like anxiety and depression in the long term, and can even cause the development and progression of mental health disorders.

Because of this, it is strongly recommended that people with mental health conditions are especially cautious and observant of their alcohol consumptionbecause it can worsen mental health conditions in the long term.

What Alcohol Content do Different Drinks Contain?

The amount of alcohol that is in a drink is usually calculated as a percentage. Alcoholic beverages have alcohol percentages that range from 2% to over 50%.

The higher the alcohol percentage, the more of an impact the alcohol will have on you.

For example, 100ml of a drink with 2% alcohol, and 100ml of a drink with 50% alcohol will have very different effects.

You might not even notice any effects if you drink 100ml of an alcoholic drink with 2% alcohol, but if you drink 100ml of an alcoholic drink with 50% alcohol you will certainly feel the impact.

Therefore, it is useful to know how strong various alcoholic beverages generally are, so that you can keep an eye on how much alcohol you’re really consuming.

  • Beer 2–6% alcohol
  • Cider 4–8% alcohol
  • Wine 8–20% alcohol
  • Rum with 40% or more alcohol
  • Tequila 40% alcohol
  • Gin 40–47% alcohol
  • Whiskey 40–50% alcohol
  • Vodka 40–50% alcohol

What is the Link between Alcohol & Other Drugs?


Alcohol is commonly used alongside other, illegal drugs. For example, it isn’t uncommon to see someone consuming both alcohol and cannabis at the same time (though the mixing of these substances can have some nasty and uncomfortable effects).

Partly, this is because alcohol reduces our inhibitions, and makes us more open to risk-taking behaviour.

If you have never done illegal drugs before, you may be more likely to if someone offers it to you if you’ve consumed alcohol because of your impaired judgement.

Does Alcohol have any Medicinal Properties?

The medicinal properties of various drugs, including psychoactive drugs like MDMA, and cannabis, are becoming increasingly disputed as more research is conducted into the area.

Many people use CBD, a chemical compound found within cannabis, as a form of self-medication and will claim that it has beneficial relaxant properties and can provide pain relief.

Meanwhile, other researchers have suggested that micro-dosing on certain psychoactive drugs like magic mushrooms can boost a person’s optimism, mood, outlook, and mental well-being while being an effective form of medication for mental health disorders like depression or anxiety.

Unlike these drugs, alcohol is widely understood to have no serious medicinal potential, and it is highly unlikely that it will ever be prescribed as medication for illness because of the huge range of negative side effects that are associated with its use, and because of the extent of how addictive the substance is.

How to Maintain a Healthy Relationship with Alcohol

There are several steps that you can take to maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol.

First and foremost, follow the alcohol consumption guidelines set out by the chief medical officer. Don’t consume more than 14 units of alcohol per week, and try to spread those 14 units over three days or more in order to avoid drinking too much on any single day.

Tell your friends and family about how you intend to develop a healthy relationship with alcohol. They can then be a positive influence and support you as you consume alcohol in moderation.

Stay educated on the topic. Don’t forget that just because alcohol isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it has no negative impacts.

In fact, alcohol has plenty of negative impacts and you should always be aware of these as you consume alcohol so that you keep avoiding over-consumption.

Is Alcohol a Drug: A Summary

Despite its common usage and status across the UK, alcohol is classified as a drug because of its various depressant and stimulant qualities.

Despite being legal, the drug is addictive and many people live with an AUD such as alcoholism.

Alcoholism is dangerous due to the short-term risks and long-term negative health impacts, including serious (and even life-threatening) withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol use can have a negative impact on mental health and can contribute to a decline in mental well-being and the development of mental health conditions.

Different alcoholic drinks contain different levels of alcohol.

To maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol, it is recommended that you start by reading and following the alcohol consumption advice set by the UK’s chief medical officer.

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For more advice and information, please contact Rehab 4 Alcoholism at 0800 111 4108.


[1] Alcohol-use disorder and severe mental illness

[2] The Risks Associated With Alcohol Use and Alcoholism