Depressants are drugs that suppress the CNS (central nervous system) that work by affecting neurochemicals that can lead to relaxation, drowsiness, reduced inhibition, sleep, coma, and potentially, death. Many depressants also have a high potential for misuse dependence and addiction.
Although depressants are similar in their ability to decrease activity in the CNS, there are differences among drugs within this category, and some are relatively safer than others.
Types of Depressant Drugs
Drugs that are classified as depressants include the following:
- Ethyl alcohol
Alcohol is among the most commonly used and abused intoxicating substances in the world, second only to caffeine. Although alcohol is legal in most areas, it also has a high potential for abuse, dependence, and addiction. In 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducted research. They found that almost 61 million people in the U.S. over age 12 reported engaging in binge drinking, and another 16 million persons reported drinking excessively.
Alcohol abuse also has high social costs. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it was reported in 2000 that an estimated 50% of all car accidents, assaults, and homicides involved alcohol.
Barbiturates are depressants, also referred to as “downers” that induce euphoric effects and relaxation. Barbiturates were once considered safe but are now known for their high potential for abuse and overdose, and also have a significant impact on sleep patterns and can lead to a reduction in REM sleep. Because barbiturates are so hazardous, they are no longer commonly prescribed to treat anxiety or insomnia.
Benzodiazepines (benzos) are depressants commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep problems. At the time of the turn of the 21st century, four different benzodiazepines were among the top 100 most frequently prescribed drugs in the U.S., in part due to their low toxicity and effectiveness.
Their potential for abuse and addiction, however, makes them a less-than-ideal from long-lasting treatment for mental illnesses such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Benzos have sedating, muscle relaxing, and anticonvulsant effects. For this reason, they are commonly used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, agitation, muscle spasms, and seizures. They are generally considered safe to use in the short-term, but long-term use can result in the development of tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms when the user tries to quit or cut back.
Medical Uses for Depressant Drugs
Depressants are commonly prescribed to relieve symptoms caused by the following conditions:
- General anxiety
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
How Depressant Drugs Work in the Body
Most depressants work by increasing the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. By doing this, brain activity is decreased, and the result is feelings of drowsiness and relaxations. Alcohol acts a bit differently, however. Like other depressants, alcohol is thought to mimic GABA in the brain, attaching to GABA receptors and hindering neuronal signaling. But alcohol also depresses the major excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate. Furthermore, it releases other activity inhibitors, such as serotonin and dopamine.
Moreover, drinking even small amounts of alcohol increases the amount of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens area of the brain, a region responsible for feelings of well-being and reward. Researchers believe it is most likely that the GABA and glutamate receptors in reward centers, including the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, work together to produce a system of positive reinforcement.
Treatment for Depressant Addiction
Depressant addiction should be first be treated using a medically-assisted detox. Alcohol withdrawal especially can lead to death in rare instances and should be closely supervised and managed with medication. Benzodiazepine withdrawal is equally dangerous and often involves a tapering schedule in which the person is slowly weaned off the drug over the course of several weeks or months.
After detox, individuals who are dependent on depressants are urged to participate in a residential or partial hospitalization program. Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery center offers evidence-based services, including behavioral therapy, individual and group counseling, and peer group support. Our professional staff have expertise in the field of addiction and can provide individuals with the tools they need to achieve abstinence and enjoy long-term recovery and wellness.
If you or your loved one is suffering from substance abuse, please call us as soon as possible and find out how we can help!