Addiction Drug Use How Depressants Affect Your Body By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry Facebook Twitter Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. Learn about our editorial process Updated on March 19, 2022 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 of Depressants Uses How Depressants Work Who Should Take Depressants? Potential Pitfalls of Taking Depressants Depressants are drugs that inhibit the function of the central nervous system (CNS) and are among the most widely used drugs in the world. These drugs operate by affecting neurons (nerve cells) in the CNS, which leads to symptoms such as drowsiness, relaxation, decreased inhibition, anesthesia, sleep, coma, and even death. Many depressant medications also have the potential to be addictive. While CNS depressants all share an ability to reduce activity in the central nervous system and lower levels of awareness in the brain, there are significant differences among substances within this drug class. Some are safer than others and several are routinely prescribed for medicinal purposes. 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. What You Need to Know About CNS Depression Types of Depressants Drugs that are classed as depressants include: Ethyl alcoholBarbituratesBenzodiazepines Ethyl Alcohol Alcohol, also known as ethyl alcohol, is the second most widely used psychoactive drug in the world (caffeine is number one). While alcohol is a legal drug, it also has a high potential for abuse. A 2014 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that nearly 61 million people in the U.S. over the age of 12 reported being binge alcohol users. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher. Another 16 million people over the age of 12 reported being heavy alcohol users. Alcohol use and abuse also has high social costs. Statistics suggest that approximately 50% of all assaults, homicides, and highway deaths involve alcohol. One-third of all U.S. suicides involve alcohol. Is Alcohol a Depressant? Barbiturates Barbiturates, sometimes referred to as downers, are a type of CNS depressant that causes euphoria and relaxation when taken in small doses. During the early half of the 1900s, barbiturates were viewed as a safe depressant, but problems with addiction and deadly overdoses soon became apparent. Barbiturates have a dramatic impact on sleep patterns, resulting in suppressed REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Because the potential for addiction and overdose is so high, barbiturates are no longer commonly used to treat anxiety and sleep problems. Benzodiazepines Benzodiazepines are a type of CNS depressant that has have sleep-inducing, sedative, muscle-relaxing, and anticonvulsant effects. The most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines are Valium, Xanax, Halcion, Ativan, and Klonopin. Benzodiazepines have been used to treat a number of issues including sleep difficulties, anxiety, excessive agitation, muscle spasms, and seizures. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), benzodiazepine use increased by 67% in the U.S. between the years 1996 and 2013. Because of their low toxicity and high effectiveness, benzodiazepines have been used as a short-term treatment for anxiety problems and insomnia. However, the potential for dependency makes them a less preferred long-term treatment. Benzodiazepines are generally viewed as safe in the short-term, but long-term use can lead to tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. Uses Depressant drugs include hypnotics, tranquilizers, and sedatives. Because these drugs slow brain activity, they can be helpful for treating acute stress, anxiety, panic, and sleep disorders. Depressants are often used to relieve symptoms associated with a number of different disorders, including: Anxiety, including social anxiety disorder, panic disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder Depression Insomnia Obsessive-compulsive disorder Seizures 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 the amount of GABA activity, brain activity is reduced, leading to a relaxing effect. This is why taking depressants can result in feelings of drowsiness. In addition to causing feelings of drowsiness or sleepiness, it is also common for people taking depressants to experience: Decreased blood pressureDisorientation or confusionDizzinessPoor coordinationMemory lossSlowed breathing and heart rateSlurred speech When people first start taking depressants, they often experience feelings of excess sleepiness until their body adjusts to the medication. 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 and effective when they are used as prescribed. A healthcare provider might prescribe a depressant medication to treat a condition such as anxiety, panic, acute stress, seizure disorders. sleep disorders, convulsions, or panic attacks. In some cases, such as when treating anxiety, these medications might be used alongside psychotherapy. 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 of time. When a person takes CNS depressants, their body builds a tolerance to the medication. As a result, people 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 a medication in order 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: 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. 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 antidepressants include alchohol, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines. Some types of depressants may be 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. A Word From Verywell If you are prescribed depressants for a health condition, it is important to always take your medication exactly as prescribed. Doing so can help minimize the risk for dependence. However, dependence may occur even if you take you medication as prescribed if you take depressants for an extended period of time. If you want to stop taking your medication, always talk to your healthcare provider first in order to minimize the risk of serious withdrawal effects. 4 Major Classes of Anxiety Medications 10 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. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol facts and statistics. National Institute on Drug Abuse. How do CNS depressants affect the brain and body?. McMurran M. Alcohol-Related Violence: Prevention and Treatment. Wiley. Kaplan MS, Huguet N, McFarland BH, et al. Use of alcohol before suicide in the United States. Ann Epidemiol. 2014;24(8):588-592.e5922. doi:10.1016/j.annepidem.2014.05.008 National Institute of Drug Abuse. What are prescription CNS depressants?. Drug Enforcement Administration. Benzodiazepines. National Institute of Drug Abuse. Benzodiazepines and opioids. 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 Zlott DA, Byrne M. Mechanisms by which pharmacologic agents may contribute to fatigue. PM R. 2010;2(5):451-5. doi:10.1016/j.pmrj.2010.04.018 Drug Enforcement Administration. Depressants. Additional Reading Hedden SL, Kennet J, Lipari R, Medley G, Tice P. Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA). By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. 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