How Depressants Affect Your Body

What are the most important things I should know about depressants?

  • Some people experience serious side effects when taking depressants, such as suicidal ideation and seizures, requiring immediate medical attention.
  • Depressant misuse can occur, and dependence on these drugs can lead to withdrawal symptoms when discontinuing their use.

Depressants are used by up to 7% of Americans and work by inhibiting central nervous system (CNS) function. While all CNS depressants share this ability, there are significant differences among substances within this drug class, and some are safer than others.

If you’ve been prescribed a depressant, it’s important to know that it can cause drowsiness and decreased inhibition. They’re also a class of drugs with a risk of misuse and addiction, increasing one’s chances of taking too much, which can lead to coma or death.

Continue reading to learn the different types of depressants and how they are used. We also explore how these medications work, when they should be taken, and their potential risks.

Types of Depressants

Drugs that are classed as depressants include:

  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics

Barbiturates

Barbiturates, sometimes referred to as downers, are a type of CNS depressant that causes euphoria and relaxation when taken in small doses. Drugs that fall into this category include Mebaral (mephobarbital), Luminal (phenobarbital), and Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium).

During the early half of the 1900s, these drugs were viewed as safe. However, problems with barbiturate addiction and deadly overdoses soon became apparent. Because the potential for misuse is so high, they are no longer used as commonly as in the past.

Barbiturate use has also declined due to the risk of certain side effects. Negative effects of barbiturates include impaired memory, judgment, and coordination, along with increased feelings of irritability, paranoia, and suicidal ideation.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are a type of CNS depressant that have sleep-inducing, sedative, muscle-relaxing, and anticonvulsant effects. Valium (diazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), Halcion (triazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), and Klonopin (clonazepam) are the most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines. 

Because of their low toxicity and high effectiveness, these drugs have been used as a short-term treatment for anxiety and insomnia. They’re also sometimes prescribed for excessive agitation, muscle spasms, and seizures.

Benzodiazepines are generally viewed as safe in the short term. This is because long-term use—which is more common in older adults—can lead to tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.

Benzodiazepine withdrawal can make you feel anxious, irritable, or confused, and may also involve trouble sleeping and potentially seizures. Lowering drug dosage gradually can help reduce these symptoms.

Non-Benzodiazepine Sedative-Hypnotics

A third class of CNS depressants is sedative-hypnotics which are not benzodiazepines. They include sleep-promoting drugs such as Ambien (zolpidem), Lunesta (eszopiclone), and Sonata (zaleplon).

Non-benzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics are sometimes considered safer than benzodiazepines since they have a shorter drug half-life and don’t affect normal sleep cycles. However, there are still risks associated with this class of drugs.

For example, one study found that older men taking a non-benzodiazepine sedative-hypnotic have a greater risk of falls. These drugs are also associated with a higher risk of overdose-related death—and the number of overdose deaths is on the rise.

If overdose is suspected, call 911 or seek immediate medical attention.

Uses for Depressants

Because these drugs slow brain activity, depressants can be helpful for treating acute stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders. They may be used to relieve symptoms associated with:

Who Should Take Depressants?

People should take depressants if they have been advised to do so by their healthcare provider. These medications can be safe when taken as prescribed, when not combined with alcohol or other drugs, and when not used while driving or operating heavy machinery. 

In some cases, CNS depressants might be used alongside psychotherapy.

How Depressants Work

Many CNS depressants work by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Like other neurotransmitters, GABA carries messages from one cell to another. By increasing GABA activity, brain activity is reduced, leading to a relaxing effect.

When people first start taking depressants, they often experience feelings of excess sleepiness until their body adjusts to the medication. In addition to feeling drowsy or sleepy, people taking depressants can also experience:

  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Poor coordination
  • Memory loss
  • Slowed breathing and heart rate
  • Slurred speech

If you experience any of these effects after taking a depressant, seek immediate medical attention or call 911.

Potential Pitfalls of Taking Depressants

There are a few downfalls associated with depressant drugs.

Misuse and Dependence

Depressants have the potential for misuse and dependence. Sometimes people misuse these medications intentionally, but dependence can also occur after taking these medications as prescribed for an extended period.

When a person takes CNS depressants long-term, their body can build a tolerance to the medication. As a result, they have to take more of the drug to continue experiencing the same benefits. Over time, these higher doses can lead to dependence. 

Dependence means that a person needs to keep taking the medication to avoid experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. 

Withdrawal

If a person has become dependent on a CNS depressant, they may experience significant, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop taking it. Symptoms of withdrawal can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Restlessness
  • Seizures
  • Shaking

These symptoms can be minimized or avoided by slowly reducing the dose of the medication over a period of time to gradually wean off the substance.

Overdose

Depressants can also lead to overdose if too much of the substance is taken or it is combined with another substance. When people overdose on depressants, their breathing slows or even stops. This can lead to coma, brain damage, or death. 

Summary

Depressants are drugs that affect neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. They slow brain activity to induce feelings of drowsiness, relaxation, and pain relief. Common types of depressants include barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and non-benzodiazepine sedative hypnotics.

CNS depressants are often prescribed to treat conditions related to stress, anxiety, sleep disorders, and seizures. These medications can be safe and effective, but they do have a risk for tolerance, dependence, and overdose.

If you are prescribed depressants for a health condition, always take your medication exactly as prescribed. Doing so can help minimize the risk for dependence; although dependence may still occur if you take the medication for an extended period of time.

If you want to stop taking your medication, talk with your healthcare provider first to create a plan to minimize the risk of serious withdrawal effects, such as reducing your dosage slowly over time.

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