Depressants are a category of substances that work by slowing the function of the central nervous system. These can include prescription medications that help treat anxiety disorders, insomnia, muscle spasms, and seizures. Examples of depressants include benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and also alcohol.
In small doses, a substance like Xanax or Valium, both from the benzodiazepine class of depressants, carry a mildly sedating effect, similar to the effect from drinking a glass of wine. But depressants become harmful when taken in higher doses or used in combination with other depressants, such as when the Xanax is followed by a glass of wine.
According to data reported by the Centers for Disease Control, out of 408,021 emergency room visits that involved benzodiazepines in 2010, 27 percent of these, or 111,165, also involved alcohol. A similar percentage of the E.R. visits applied to opioid pain relievers, which have sedative properties when consumed in combination with alcohol.
The DAWN Report states that “the predicted risk ratios suggest that combining benzodiazepines with opioid pain relievers or alcohol increases the risk of a more serious outcome sufficiently to warrant concern.” In essence, combining depressants significantly increases the probability of a more serious or dangerous outcome.
It is essential to gain a better understanding of which substances will depress the central nervous system, and how combining the use of multiple depressants can have dangerous results.
What Are Depressants?
Depressants, also known as “downers,” are among the most widely used substances in the world. Depressants, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics, slow brain activity by attaching to the neurotransmitters and increasing gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels. This action causes feelings of drowsiness, deep relaxation, reduced muscle tension, and induced sleep to various degrees depending on the substance and dosage.
Examples of depressants include:
- Barbiturates, including Amytal, Seconal, Nembutal, Luminal, and Mebaral
- Benzodiazepines, including Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, and Librium
- Hypnotics, such as Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta
Examples of substances with sedative effects include:
- Opioids, such as Vicodin, OxyContin, morphine, and codeine
- Over the counter sleep aids, such as Z-Quil, Unisom, and Sominex
Most depressant medications are controlled by the DEA and are classified in a range from Schedule I to Schedule IV based on their potential for misuse or addictive properties.
Consequences of Using Depressants
As with any substance that alters brain chemistry, users may experience both short-term and long-term effects. The short-term effects of depressants include:
- Lowered blood pressure
- Dilated pupils
- Loss of coordination
- Loss of memory
- Slowed pulse
- Reduced inhibitions
- Slowed breathing
- Impaired judgment
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty concentrating
- Slowed reaction time
Extended use of depressants can have serious consequences, including:
- Increased tolerance leading to dependence or addiction. Prolonged use of depressants will cause tolerance levels to rise, resulting in an increased risk for dependence or addiction. Withdrawal from depressants can be life-threatening, and must be closely managed by a medically trained professional.
- Accidental injuries. Extensive use of depressants can increase the probability of an accident occurring, such as an automobile accident if driving under the influence of a depressant, or sustaining an injury, such as a fall.
- Suicidal thoughts. Some depressants, such as benzodiazepines, are associated with afold risk for suicide. Also, people with a severe alcohol use disorder are more susceptible to depression and suicide.
- Sexual dysfunction. Other side effects of depressants, including alcohol, are loss of libido and sexual dysfunction.
- Overdose. The risk for toxicity rises as tolerance to the substance increases and the individual takes higher doses or combines multiple depressants.
While people may use depressants initially to help them feel better, it soon becomes clear that these effects are short-lived. Getting control over a substance use disorder (SUD) involving depressants is essential for avoiding serious long-term consequences. Thankfully, expert treatment is available to help you overcome the SUD, and to move forward to enjoy a fulfilling life.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.