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What Are Depressants: Risks Of Addiction And Side Effects

Last Updated: June 9, 2022

Authored by Sharon Levy, MD, MPH

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, more than 29 million people suffer from drug addiction globally. Some of the most commonly abused prescription medications include opioids, amphetamines, and depressants. Central nervous system (CNS) depressants are medications that slow down activity in the human brain. These medications are sedative-hypnotics and tranquilizers that are prescribed to treat panic disorder, anxiety, stress, and sleep problems. The best-known CNS depressants are benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics, and barbiturates. So as other drugs, when misused, depressant drugs can lead to tolerance with progressively larger doses needed to achieve the desired effect. After prolonged use, abrupt reduction in the dose of the medicine can cause withdrawal symptoms. Sudden cessation of depressant medications can have life-threatening consequences, including slowed breathing and seizures.

What Are Depressants?

Central nervous system depressant medicines are sedative-hypnotics that reduce (depress) the level of arousal in the brain. Depressants contribute to the formation of a calming effect. Such substances inhibit certain processes in the central nervous system. Taking depressants causes a brief feeling of joy that is followed by severe drowsiness. The person addicted to this substance has a slower pulse and breathing rate, slower reflexes, reduced need for water and food, and significantly reduced brain activity. Depressants are available in capsule, pill, and liquid form and can be prescribed to a person suffering from panic disorder, anxiety, stress, and insomnia.

Here is a list of depressants examples divided by drug class:

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, commonly referred to as benzos, are pharmaceuticals designed to treat various conditions of the nervous system including sleep disorders, anxiety and panic disorders, muscle spasms, seizures, alcohol and drug withdrawal. While there are many types of benzos, all act by causing mild to severe depression of the central nervous system. Benzodiazepines are known to be habit-forming, leading to benzodiazepine abuse and addiction.

Some of the common benzos depressants examples are as following:

  • Valium (diazepam) is prescribed for anxiety and muscle tension. Taking it without prescription can lead to addiction. Valium abuse is common in veterans dealing with PTSD.
  • Klonopin (clonazepam) or K-Pin is a powerful sedative that is a highly effective treatment for anxiety. In 2011, more than 75,000 people were admitted to emergency rooms for Klonopin-related complications.
  • Xanax (alprazolam) is a powerful benzodiazepine that is abused for its sedative effect. A severe Xanax overdose can lead to coma and death.
  • Halcion (triazolam) is a sedative-hypnotic that is used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Dependence to this drug can develop in as little as two weeks.
  • Ativan (lorazepam) is a potent and highly addictive sedative prescribed for anxiety
    disorders and seizure disorders. This fast-acting drug is intended for short-term use because prolonged use can be habit-forming.

All medications have the potential to produce unwanted symptoms, but benzos side effects can be particularly troublesome. Symptoms of benzodiazepines use tend to mimic many other conditions. In fact, some of the symptoms of abuse are the same as the conditions the medication is meant to treat.

A depressed woman reads information about depressant drugs.

Non-Benzodiazepine Sedative Hypnotics

Not all depressants are benzodiazepines. Thus, it is possible to distinguish a group of depressants that also has a sedative effect on the central nervous system, but do not belong to benzos in the mechanism of their action.

Some examples of depressants are the following non-benzodiazepine sedative hypnotics:

  • Ambien (zolpidem) is a prescription sedative that can be habit-forming even when taken at the prescribed dose for prolonged periods of time.
  • Sonata (zaleplon) is a prominent non-benzo sleep aid that helps users enjoy a restful sleep. This fast-acting drug produces mild euphoria followed by hallucinations, blackouts, and memory loss.
  • Lunesta (eszopiclone) is a non-benzo sedative-hypnotic that makes a person feel relaxed and mellow. People abuse this drug to enhance sleep, ease stress, or feel euphoria.

People with an addiction to these medications need help and should undergo supervised therapy with a gradual reduction in dose, followed by inpatient or outpatient counseling. A behavioral therapy program may also help a patient to overcome addiction.

Barbiturates

Substances derived from barbituric acid that act upon the Central Nervous System in a depressant manner to produce a broad spectrum of effects are called Barbiturates. These effects include anything from mild sedation to complete anesthesia and today most doctors only use the substance in highly controlled environments and just for one-off uses like anesthesia.

Some examples of depressants are the following barbiturates:

  • Luminal (Phenobarbital) is an anticonvulsant hypnotic that is used for seizure control and it is also sometimes used to treat anxiety and alcohol withdrawal. It can be quite habit-forming, causing physical and psychological dependence, as well as tolerance, which has a potential for causing overdose.
  • Butalbital is a sedative-hypnotics which functions as a tension relaxer, used to treat severe headaches and pains. Butalbital is habit-forming and risks of overdose and abuse put this drug on the controlled substances list.
  • Fiorinal is a prescription barbiturate that is used to treat Tension-Type Headaches (TTH) and migraines. Due to the fact that Fiorinal ingredients include Butalbital, this medication has a strong liability for abuse and addiction as well as for the development of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.
  • Fioricet is a prescription medication for chronic tension headaches and other forms of severe headaches. The primary factor responsible for the addictive potential of the drug has the barbiturate Butalbital which is a component of the Fioricet drug. Hence, the prescription of this barbiturate has decreased in recent years.

In patients who start taking barbiturates for medical reasons, addiction develops slowly and it may take from 3 months to several years. The timing of the development of a painful attachment depends on the dose and frequency of use of the drug and the individual characteristics of the patient. That is why these drugs can be prescribed as a short-term solution and only under a strict doctor’s supervision.

Short- and Long-Term Effects of Depressant Use

Prolonged use of depressants can have a negative effect on the patient. Therefore, a distinction is made between short- and long-term adverse physical and psychological effects that a patient may experience while taking this types of medications:

Some of the short-term physical and psychological effects of depressant use include:

  • Slowed brain function
  • Lowering of blood pressure, pulse rate, and breathing rate
  • Confusion and poor concentration
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Sluggishness
  • Slurred speech
  • Dilated pupils
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Impaired memory, coordination, and judgment
  • Paranoia and suicidal thoughts

As mentioned before, depressants may be addictive and some of the long-term effects of CNS depressants include:

  • Tolerance
  • Depression
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Cravings
  • Panic and anxiety

What Do Depressants Do to the Brain?

CNS depressants increase the activity of a chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human brain. This chemical reduces brain activity and causes a calming and drowsy effect.

Medicines that increase GABA activity, therefore, produce effects such as:

  • Sedation
  • Hypnosis (sleep inducing)
  • Anxiolysis (anxiety reducing)
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Anticonvulsant effect

Because of these effects, depressants are prescribed for anxiety, sleep problems, and convulsions.

Depressant Addiction and Abuse Overview

Are depressants addictive? Prescription depressants are addictive, and depressant abuse is a worldwide problem. In the United States alone, an estimated 15 million people are struggling with prescription drug abuse. More than 22,000 overdose deaths are reported in the country each year. A survey found that teenagers believe prescription drugs are safer than street drugs and rely on the medicine cabinet at home as a source.

A study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse called Monitoring the Future found that 7.5 percent of 12th graders and 6 percent of 10th graders have used tranquilizers at some point in the past. In 2015, more than 8,700 deaths were reported from benzodiazepine overdose (Valium and Xanax). It is evident that depressant abuse is a pressing problem in America and around the world.

Signs and Symptoms of Depressant Addiction and Abuse

What are the depressant addiction and abuse signs and symptoms? There are some telltale signs that a friend or family member is misusing these medicines. The person may always look sedated or drowsy, talk slowly or slur their speech, be unable to concentrate, or have poor coordination. A lowering of inhibitions and poor judgment or taking risks a person would not normally take, are other symptoms to look out for.

Physical signs of depressant addiction and abuse include:

  • drowsiness
  • slowed heart rate
  • reduced breathing rate
  • low blood pressure

The behavioral and psychological signs and symptoms of  depressant addiction are as following:

  • Taking someone else’s medication
  • Taking the medication in a way other than prescribed
  • Taking medicine at a dose other than prescribed
  • Taking the drug recreationally
  • Taking medicine to counteract the effect of a stimulant
  • Mixing the medication with alcohol or other drugs

Depressant abuse is defined as taking the medication without a prescription or taking it at a dose or in a way other than prescribed. Such a misuse can lead to substance use disorder and addiction which can be tackled only with the help of medical support.

Depressed man sitting head in hands on the bed in the dark bedroom.

Depressant Withdrawal Signs and Symptoms

Long-term use, even with a prescription, can lead to tolerance, which means more frequent or larger doses are required to get the expected effect. Depressant withdrawal symptoms occur if the medicine is stopped suddenly, since with regular use, the body adjusts to the medication and larger and more frequent doses are needed to achieve the desired effect.

If someone with a depressant addiction abruptly stops taking the medicine, they may experience withdrawal symptoms, which can occur within a few hours of the last dose, and include:

  • Shakiness
  • Seizures
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Cravings
  • Hallucinations
  • Hyperactive reflexes
  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature

What makes depressants so dangerous? When used legitimately under medical supervision and by prescription, depressants are a relatively safe and effective treatment for anxiety, sleep disorders, and convulsions. However, misuse can lead to dependence, and in severe cases, addiction.

Depressant Overdose: What Are The Dangers?

There is a significant risk of accidental overdose in people who misuse depressants. Depressant overdose can lead to respiratory depression (slowed or stopped breathing). For instance, barbiturate abuse may cause less oxygen to reach the brain, which can lead to seizures, permanent brain damage, coma, and death. Benzodiazepines rarely lead to respiratory depression or death. However, the sedation caused by misuse of these medications can lead to memory impairment, confusion, and poor motor coordination. These symptoms may be associated with severe injuries and accidents.

Furthermore, combined depressants and alcohol abuse is extremely dangerous because alcohol is also a depressant. If someone has a suspected CNS depressant overdose, it is important to contact 911 for immediate medical attention.

Depressant Addiction Treatment Options

Depressants slow down normal brain function and create a calming, “sleepy” effect. Even though they are often prescribed to treat sleep disorders, anxiety, and seizure disorders, with continued use of depressants, the body builds up a tolerance to the drug. Which means that larger doses are needed to achieve the same effect and in its turn it may lead to addiction.

It is dangerous to attempt to quit CNS depressants without medical supervision. Recovery and treatment for substance abuse must always be obtained at reputed drug rehab facilities offering outpatient and inpatient programs. Detoxification (withdrawal from the drug) involves gradual tapering of the dose. The length of therapy depends on the severity of the dependence and other coexisting mental health issues. Addiction treatment for CNS depressants needs to be individualized and should include counseling, behavioral therapies, and a group support program.

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Page Sources

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Published on: May 25th, 2018

Updated on: June 9th, 2022

About Author

Sharon Levy, MD, MPH

After successful graduation from Boston University, MA, Sharon gained a Master’s degree in Public Health. Since then, Sharon devoted herself entirely to the medical niche. Sharon Levy is also a certified addiction recovery coach.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.