Addiction Drug Use How Depressants Affect Your Body By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MSEd Facebook Twitter Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book." Learn about our editorial process Updated on May 02, 2023 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by David Susman, PhD Medically reviewed by David Susman, PhD David Susman, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist with experience providing treatment to individuals with mental illness and substance use concerns. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Yagi Studio / Digital Vision / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Types Uses How They Work Potential Pitfalls Summary 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. This article discusses the different types of depressants and how they are used. It also explores how these medications work, when they should be taken, and potential risks. Most Important Information to Know About Depressants CNS depressants can help treat certain mental health disorders, but they are also a class of drugs associated with misuse, addiction, and overdose. If you have been prescribed a depressant, work closely with your healthcare provider and take the medication as prescribed to help avoid these issues. Types of Depressants Drugs that are classed as depressants include: BarbituratesBenzodiazepinesNon-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 depressants. But 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 they were 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. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database. 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 problems 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 that 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 greater 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, and sleep disorders. They are used to relieve symptoms associated with: Anxiety, including social anxiety disorder, panic disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder Depression Insomnia Obsessive-compulsive disorder Seizures 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 used 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 feelings of drowsiness or sleepiness, people taking depressants can experience: Decreased blood pressureDisorientation or confusionDizzinessPoor coordinationMemory lossSlowed breathing and heart rateSlurred speech If you experience any of these effects after taking a depressant, seek immediate medical attention or call 911. Potential Pitfalls of Taking Depressants Depressants have the potential for misuse and dependence. Sometimes people misuse these medications intentionally, but dependence can 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 medication to continue experiencing the same benefits. Over time, these higher doses can lead to dependence. What Is Dependence? Dependence means that a person needs to keep taking the medication to avoid experiencing symptoms of 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: AnxietyHallucinationsIncreased blood pressureIrritabilityNauseaRapid heartbeatRestlessnessSeizuresShaking 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. 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. Medications You Should Never Mix With Alcohol 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 including 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. 4 Major Classes of Anxiety Medications 14 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Borodovsky JT, Krauss MJ, Chi T, Bierut LJ, Grucza RA. Trends in prescribed central nervous system depressant medications among adults who regularly consume alcohol: United States 1999 to 2014. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2019;43(7):1510-1518. doi:10.1111/acer.14081 Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration. Depressants. National Institute of Drug Abuse. What are prescription CNS depressants? Norn S, Permin H, Kruse E, Kruse PR. [On the history of barbiturates]. Dansk Medicinhistorisk Arbog. 2015;43:133-151. Cleveland Clinic. Barbiturates. Drug Enforcement Administration. Barbiturates. Drug Enforcement Administration. Benzodiazepines. Olfson M, King M, Schoenbaum M. Benzodiazepine use in the United States. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(2):136-42. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.1763 Soyka M. Treatment of benzodiazepine dependence. N Engl J Med. 2017;376:1147-1157. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1611832 Diem SJ, Ewing SK, Stone KL, Ancoli-Israel S, Redline S, Ensrud KE. Use of non-benzodiazepine sedative hypnotics and risk of falls in older men. J Gerontol Geriatr Res. 2014;3(3):158. doi:10.4172/2167-7182.1000158 Tardelli VS, Bianco MCM, Prakash R, et al. Overdose deaths involving non-BZD hypnotic/sedatives in the USA: Trends analyses. Lancet Reg Health Amer. 2022;10:100190. doi:10.1016/j.lana.2022.100190 National Institute on Drug Abuse. Prescription CNS depressants. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. What are depressants? Doyno CR, White CM. Sedative-hypnotic agents that impact gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors: Focus on flunitrazepam, gamma-hyroxybutyric acid, phenibut, and selank. J Clin Pharmacol. 2021;61(S2):S114-S128. doi:10.1002/jcph.1922 By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book." See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Get Treatment for Addiction Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.