Depressants are a unique class of drugs with a fascinating history. Used legitimately, and under tight medical supervision, they can help treat many conditions. But, as we’ll see, depressants aren’t typically prescribed for long-term use. What happens when these drugs are used for longer than intended? Is it possible to become addicted? Is there any risk of overdose?
In this post, we’ll explore these questions so you can gain a crystal clear understanding of the addictive potential of these drugs and what to do if you think you might have a problem. Let’s get started.
What Are Depressants?
Depressants are medications and other substances that depress, or slow, the central nervous system. They are prescribed to treat a number of conditions, including anxiety and insomnia. They’re also used to prevent severe seizures in epilepsy. One thing that all depressants have in common is their ability to cause dependency, which can lead to addiction. Tying into this is the fact that depressants are often used recreationally, which can easily lead to abuse.
While depressants are widely used in the U.S. and around the world, most of these drugs should only be used under medical supervision.
Barbiturates, colloquially known as ‘downers,’ are drugs that cause a sense of relaxation or euphoria. For many decades, doctors and researchers alike considered barbiturates to be relatively safe. However, today most experts agree that barbiturate overuse can have severe consequences. While the drugs cause a general feeling of sleepiness, they can also cause the patient to experience less REM sleep over time. REM sleep is a crucial component of sleep, and the lack of sufficient REM sleep can cause:
Increased inflammatory responses
Increased risk of obesity
Like all depressants, barbiturates are addictive. This can be dangerous in and of itself, as dependence on a substance can lead to impulsive behaviors the person otherwise would not engage in. However, there are other factors to consider. For instance, one unique aspect of barbiturate addiction is the high tolerance exhibited by patients. As tolerance for the barbiturate increases, the person needs to use more of the substance to achieve the same effect. This can lead to ever-increasing consumption, and then overdose, the result of which may be coma or death.
Benzodiazepines are sedatives, and are most commonly used as muscle relaxers. They’re also used to treat seizures, anxiety, panic disorders and insomnia. Although on-going use of these drugs is often required to treat certain conditions, there is potential for addiction. In fact, the longer someone uses this type of drug to treat their condition, the higher the risk. Additionally, mixing Benzodiazepines with other substances can amplify side effects and may increase the risk of chemical dependency.
Benzodiazepines were first developed as a replacement for barbiturates. Though they’re a newer class of drug, they share many of the downsides with their older counterparts, such as the potential for dependence and tolerance.
A few examples:
Moving away for a moment from controlled substances, we find alcohol. Alcohol is the most widely used depressant in the world. The compound is a depressant because it slows neural activity and general brain functioning. It does this by amplifying the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA. If you’ve ever consumed a moderate to large amount of alcohol and then noticed that you were no longer affected by cold weather or pain, you’ve experienced its depressive effects.
Like other depressants, alcohol is highly addictive. Binge drinking, or chronic use, increases the chances of becoming dependent.
Strictly speaking, marijuana isn’t classified as a depressant because its effects can vary widely from person to person. However, certain individuals find that indulging in the dried leaves of the cannabis plant can leave them feeling ‘down’ or ‘sedated.’ When used medicinally, it can reduce pain and may have a calming effect. Note that different strains of marijuana are known for different effects. Strains commonly used medicinally are:
- Cannabis Indica
- Cannabis Sativa
- Various hybrids of these two
Whether the above strains are considered depressants or not largely depends on who you ask. However, marijuana can have other side effects not typically associated with depressants, such as:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Increased heart rate
- Increased appetite
Marijuana works by temporarily changing how areas of the brain function. These areas of the brain influence judgment, self-control, emotion regulation and memory.
The History of Depressants
The first compound associated with depressants as we know them today is barbituric acid. This acid was first synthesized in 1864 by Adolf van Baeyer, a Nobel prize winning chemist. Baeyer had been experimenting with uric acid—a compound found in urine. In fact, throughout the Victorian period in Europe, many industries were finding uses for the golden-colored, phosphorus-rich liquid. Before the advent of modern plumbing, urine in cities was, as you might imagine, a burden. But industrious cultures found many uses for urine over the centuries, including:
As a way to make leather softer. The urea in urine, a nitrogen-based compound, breaks down into ammonia over time. Ammonia, when put into water, is caustic. The high PH of ammonia breaks down organic material, thus resulting in more supple leather.
As a cleaner. When urea breaks down into ammonia, it becomes a powerful household cleaner. As a base, it fights dirt and grease, which are acidic.
As a source of potassium nitrate. Potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, is a key ingredient of gunpowder, and is quite rare in nature compared to the other two ingredients: charcoal and sulfur.
It’s not too surprising, then, that an accomplished chemist such as Baeyer was investigating the components of urine as a possible source of medicine. Baeyer combined urea with diethyl malonate, an ester obtained from apples, and the result was barbituric acid. Stories abound about how the substance got its name. The most popular of these—but arguably the least likely—was that Baeyer named the compound after one of the urine donors, a woman named Barbara.
While barbituric acid was found to have no immediate medicinal value since it has no effect on the nervous system, over 2,500 compounds have since been synthesized from it. These substances do possess pharmacologically active qualities.
Over time, researchers came to classify these compounds by how quickly they affect the nervous system, and how long the effect lasts.
As mentioned, the first depressants developed were the barbiturates.
Classes of Barbiturates
Barbiturates come in three types.
- Short, or intermediate
The ultrashort variety is often used for anesthesia. Because they don’t last very long in the system, medical professionals can use them with precision. This also means that medical staff can bring a patient out of anesthesia very quickly with these barbiturates, which can be important in certain emergency situations.
Short or intermediate-term barbiturates are often prescribed for anxiety disorders or insomnia, though they’re also used in anesthesia.
Long term barbiturates, such as phenobarbital, last a long time in the body and are used as muscle relaxers. A typical application of a long-term barbiturate is as an anticonvulsant for use in treating epileptic seizures.
Use in Mental Illness
Some depressants, such as Zyprexa, Haldol, and Seroquel act as tranquilizers or antipsychotics. By reducing activity in the central nervous system and brain, they are thought to dampen the effects of certain mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
It was not until the 1950s that researchers noticed that the use of depressants could lead to dependence. Later in this post, we’ll explore depressant addiction and the various options available to individuals who have become dependent or who have developed tolerance. For now, let’s look at the possible short, mid and long term effects of depressant usage.
The Effects of Depressants
Depressants have a wide range of effects, all of which may vary by the individual. Other factors, such as weight and dosage, can impact side effects as well. But all depressants slow the activity of the central nervous system in one way or another.
Following is a list of the documented effects of depressants. Note that a given drug may not cause all of these effects.
- Slowed brain function
- Slurred speech
- Slowed breathing
- Visual disturbances
- Lowered blood pressure
- Poor concentration
- Slowed pulse
- Dilated pupils
- Difficulty urinating
Note that unusually high doses can cause impairment of memory, irritability, paranoia, coordination issues and even suicidal thoughts. In addition, some people find that depressants have little to no effect on them, or that they have the opposite of the intended effect. These individuals can become agitated or even aggressive.
Finally, Combining prescription depressants with other substances, such as alcohol or marijuana, can amplify their effect. In extreme cases, breathing and heart rate may slow to dangerous levels.
Most depressants are capable of causing tolerance over the mid to long term, and some may lead to tolerance quite early on. As mentioned, when a person develops tolerance to a drug, they’ll find that they need a higher dose to achieve the desired effect.
Long-term use of depressants can also cause, or can lead to:
- Chronic fatigue
- Difficulty breathing
- Sexual problems
- Sleep problems
- High blood sugar
- Weight gain
As dependency on the drug develops, the individual may experience intense cravings. If the drug is not available, they may experience anxiety or panic attacks. Other documented withdrawal symptoms include:
Note that for high dose, long-term users, withdrawal symptoms can be severe, and, if not seen to by a professional, can be life threatening.
The Addictive Potential of Depressants
Of all the types of depressants, barbiturates have the most addictive potential out of the gate. However, all depressants can lead to dependence. As tolerance develops, the individual will note that they don’t react to the same dose as strongly as they used to. Therefore, a temptation to consume more of the drug at once will develop. They may also find themselves saying things like, “This drug just isn’t working anymore.”
Only a medical professional is qualified to determine whether a medication has stopped working as intended. Moreover, it can be extremely difficult for a patient to be objective about how well the medication is working.
The amount of time it takes for tolerance to develop depends on the drug and several other factors, such as genetics. If you’re concerned that you may be developing tolerance to depressants, it may be time to discuss with your doctor whether you need the drug anymore. Most depressants are not meant to be consumed long term.
Signs of Depressant Abuse
The first, and most obvious sign of depressant abuse is taking these drugs without a prescription or without medical direction. For instance, if a patient is adjusting their dosage themselves depending on how well the medication is ‘working’ or on how they feel that day, they may have a problem. The patient must work with a medical professional to manage dose over time.
Other warning signs include:
- Secretive, or antisocial behavior
- Mood swings
- Decreased social interactions at work, school, etc.
- Feelings of apathy, or depression in general
- Withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from the drug
Note on Withdrawal Symptoms
Because of how depressants affect brain chemistry and activity level, withdrawal symptoms may be sudden and severe. Severe withdrawal symptoms may be accompanied by depression or suicidal thoughts. Therefore, individuals should go through detox only under medical supervision in a rehab facility.
Other potential withdrawal symptoms include:
- Aches and pains
- Nausea and vomiting
- Panic attacks
Depressants and PTSD
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can be caused by a particularly traumatic event. Symptoms may include depression, intense flashbacks, nightmares that interfere with ability to get adequate sleep and uncontrollable thoughts about the triggering event.
Because depression is one of the major symptoms, individuals struggling with PTSD should not take depressants. The risk of abuse is quite high. Individuals with PTSD are encouraged instead to seek treatment via more traditional avenues, such as:
- Cognitive-behavior therapy
- Group therapy
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Some individuals struggling with PTSD are prescribed antidepressants. In this case, abusing depressants can be doubly dangerous, as they will interfere with the anti-depressants.
When to Seek Help
If you or someone you love is addicted to depressants, the time to get help is now. As noted, the risk of overdose is higher with depressants than with other drugs. Because these drugs suppress the central nervous system, overdose can lead to:
- Impaired ability to breathe, which can result in brain damage if prolonged
- Dangerously low blood pressure
A Few Questions to Ask Yourself
Being objective about drug use frequency, tolerance or dependence isn’t easy. To get a clearer picture of your drug use, ask yourself:
- Do you think about drugs a lot?
- Have you ever tried to stop or cut down before but couldn’t?
- Have you ever lied to a doctor about symptoms so they wouldn’t cancel your prescription?
- Have you ever thought you couldn’t function without the drug?
- Have you ever felt like you can’t fit in or engage in social activities if you didn’t have the drug?
- Have you ever felt like you couldn’t be happy or content if you didn’t have access to the drug?
- Do you ever use drugs because you were upset with other people?
Have you ever used a drug without knowing what it was or what it would do?
If any of these sounds like you, and you have an active depressant prescription or use these drugs without a prescription, medically assisted treatment for addiction may be appropriate. While the prospect of entering such a program can be quite intimidating, these programs are tailored to the individual’s needs. They’re designed to move a patient from addiction to recovery and beyond as quickly, and as painlessly, as possible. In most programs, treatment is composed of two main phases.
Detox consists of allowing the drug to leave your system. This is where the hard work is done. You will experience withdrawal symptoms. The good news is, withdrawal symptoms don’t last forever.
Detox activities may include:
- Management of severe withdrawal symptoms under medical supervision
- Medication to assist with cravings and discomfort
- Medical monitoring—general
- A diet plan to resolve any micro-nutrient deficiencies
- Inpatient treatment
The next phase involves recovering from addiction in a safe, medically supervised environment. While in residential rehab, you’ll have access to:
- Diet and fitness plans to improve your overall health
- Medically supervised treatment
- 12-step programs
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Life skills education
- On-going recovery and coaching resources
Naturally, the features of your particular rehab program will vary.
Though facing withdrawal symptoms is a daunting prospect for most, the risks associated with continued depressant abuse are many. Through a high-quality rehab program, you can regain your sense of control and can eliminate the risk of a potentially lethal overdose.
In this post, you’ve learned what depressants are, how they affect the body and their potential side effects. You’ve also learned some of the warning signs of depressant abuse. We hope this concise guide has helped you clarify whether your depressant use is within normal bounds.
The Hills is an addiction treatment center that focuses on helping patients make progress on the road to recovery. Contact our facility today to find out how we can help if you or someone you love struggle with an addiction to depressants!