We hear a lot of terminologies when it comes to prescription and non-prescription drugs. Eventually, many of the terms, descriptions, and uses of various substances start to blur together, and their correct applications become blurry. Some drugs, despite whether they are legal (prescription) or not (street drugs), can be dangerous depending on how and for how long they are used. Depressants fall into this category. Depressants are a commonly abused family of medications. There are several of them, and they fall into a wide array of both illicit and prescription drugs.
What are depressants?
The word depressant has several definitions. To better understand how depressants, work, and what they are, it is first beneficial to briefly cover the other two categories into which drugs are often categorized. Drugs are usually divided into three main categories: stimulants, hallucinogens, and depressants. Some drugs may have multiple categorizations.
- Stimulants-these These are drugs that stimulate or speed up physiological functions within the body.
- Hallucinogens-these are drugs that act upon the functions of the brain and distort perceptions of reality.
Depressants are drugs that slow down or depress the body’s operation. Depressant drugs are commonly referred to as central nervous system or CNS depressants. The broad category of CNS depressants includes substances such as alcohol, opioids (painkillers, morphine, and heroin), antipsychotics, anti-anxiety drugs, anesthetics, and drugs that are used for sedation or to help people sleep. Depressants are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety, panic, acute stress, mental disturbances, and sleep problems. When taken, even legally, they can produce a “high” or intoxicative effect. This effect is heightened when depressant medications are taken to excess. As with most psychoactive drugs, they tend to mask problems without solving them, and their use comes with a long list of side effects-most, notably dependence and addiction.
The term depressant is also used to define the category of legal, prescription psychoactive drugs. More specifically, these drugs include antipsychotics, Benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety drugs), Barbiturates, and sedative-hypnotics (sleep-inducing drugs). Depressant medications can come in various forms, including tablets, capsules, or liquid form designed for intravenous (IV) injection. Unfortunately, depressant drugs are widely distributed through both legal and illegal means, including theft, fraudulent prescriptions, street sales, and on the “black market.”
How are depressants regulated?
The Drug Enforcement Agency or DEA regulates depressant not only for their illicit use and illegal distribution, but due to their high potential for abuse, dependence, and addiction. Central nervous system depressants slow brain activity and the functions of vital organs in the body.
The history behind antidepressants
For thousands of years, compounds and plant products have been used in the attempt to cure or at least subdue the symptoms associated with mental health disorders and chronic pain. These included fermented grains or fruits (alcohol) and products produced from the opium poppy. In the early 1800s, chloral hydrate was synthesized by chemists and soon used as a sedative-hypnotic along with alcohol, opium, and cannabis. The problem was, Chloral hydrate was addictive and produced withdrawal symptoms like those seen with alcohol withdrawal.
Flash forward thirty or so years to the late 1800s, and we see the development of barbituric acid. Within a short time, this was used to develop a drug called barbital. Barbital was an early depressant that was used to induce sleep. Barbiturate drugs were used for decades but eventually developed a poor reputation for causing addiction, overdose, coma, and death. While still used in the medical field today, barbiturates have been primarily replaced by benzodiazepine drugs, which entered the market in the late 1950s.
Today there is a wide variety of depressant mediations produced by pharmaceutical companies. Typically, they are only available through prescription, but due to their addictive nature, it is not uncommon to find them available for sale as street drugs.
Antipsychotic drugs are prescribed to treat psychosis and other severe mental health problems. The first antipsychotics were developed in the 1950s and included Haldol and Thorazine, two commonly known medications. These first-generation antipsychotics became known for their severe side effects, such as tardive dyskinesia (a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary facial gestures).
By the 1990s, the second-generation antipsychotic medications were in production. These also came with severe side effects such as congenital disabilities and type 2 diabetes.
Typical antipsychotics include Haldol, Thorazine, Loxitane, and Prolixin, among others. Several prescribed medications fall into the category of atypical antipsychotics, and those include Abilify, Risperdal, Seroquel, and Zyprexa.
Benzodiazepines are anti-anxiety or anxiolytic drugs. This means they are intended and prescribed to treat anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. Some benzodiazepines are also prescribed for use as muscle relaxants. As previously noted, benzodiazepines were developed to replace barbiturates. Unfortunately, they shared many of the same adverse side effects, such as dependence and addiction. They also cause severe withdrawal symptoms, including sleep disturbances, anxiety, panic attacks, hallucinations, seizure, confusion, and nausea.
In some cases, withdrawal from benzodiazepines can lead to suicide or death. Fear of or experiencing these effects often keeps people from weaning themselves off their use. Any withdrawal from benzodiazepine addiction must be medically supervised to avoid the potential for severe complications.
Commonly prescribed benzodiazepines include Valium, Serax, Klonipin, Xanax, and Ativan. Another benzodiazepine that is widely known is Rohypnol. Rohypnol is not manufactured or legally manufactured in the United States and is about ten times more potent than Valium. Rohypnol is better known as the “date rape” drug as it renders those who unwittingly ingest it incapable of resisting any unwanted advances. Rohypnol is even more dangerous when mixed with alcohol, and the effects of the drug can persist up to twelve hours. A person who ingests Rohypnol may collapse and be unable to move yet remain completely aware of everything that is happening; however, later they may have full or partial memory loss around the events.
Sedative-hypnotics are also referred to as nonbenzodiazepine drugs as their effects and risks are similar to benzodiazepines, but their molecular structure is different. These drugs are generally prescribed to induce sleep or treat sleep-related problems such as insomnia. As with benzodiazepines, their use can lead to abuse, dependency, and addiction.
The most commonly prescribed (and well-known) drug in this category is Ambien. Ambien has made the news and been the subject of many lawsuits for incidents of “sleepwalking” or “blackouts” associated with the use of the drug.
Other drugs in this category include Lunesta and Sonata. Methaqualone or Quaaludes also fall into this category. In the 1960s, Methaqualone was being prescribed as a sedative; however, within a decade, it had become famous in the disco scene for its euphoric effect. As with Rohypnol, Methaqualone or “ludes” developed a notorious reputation as a date rape drug. Methaqualone was banned in the United States in 1984 due to rampant abuse, addictive properties, overdose, and death.
Another drug that falls into the same category as Methaqualone and Rohypnol is GHB or gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid. GHB was initially produced for use as an anesthetic but was classified as a Schedule I drug by the DEA in 2000. GHB can induce blackouts and memory loss and has become known as a club drug and is commonly referenced in cases of assault.
Dangers of Depressants
The broad list of CNS depressants causes many of the same side effects in varying degrees of intensity. Below is a partial list of short term and long-term effects of depressants.
Short term effects:
- Low blood pressure
- Inability to concentrate
- Slowed brain function
- Slowed respiration
- Slowed heart rate
- Confusion or disorientation
- Impaired judgment
- Dizziness, headache
- Memory loss
- Overdose, coma, death
- Memory loss
- Chronic mood disturbances
- Anxiety, panic
- Respiratory difficulties
- Sleep disturbances
- Elevated blood pressure
- Organ failure
- GI bleeding
- Irregular heartbeat
- Violent outbursts
- Suicidal ideation
- Overdose, coma, death
- Neurological disorders
The Dangers of Mixing Drugs
Combining depressant drugs with other drugs or alcohol can be extremely dangerous for both the user and others. Mixing depressants with other depressants, street drugs, or alcohol can result in slowed respiration and heart rate. Depending on the amount of the drug(s) consumed, this can eventually lead to coma or death. Using a depressant with a stimulant can also have adverse effects. A “speedball” is a mixture of heroin and cocaine that can be fatal. A similar mix of prescription medications such as Adderall and Ambien can be equally as dangerous.
Overdose is a common and sometimes fatal result of depressant addiction and abuse. In the case of barbiturates, there is a minimal difference between the desired dose and an overdose. A simple miscalculation in dosing can result in respiratory failure, coma, and death. This is one of the reasons barbiturate prescriptions were replaced with alternate medications.
The primary risk of depressant overdose is respiratory depression. This means a person’s breathing becomes very shallow or ceases al; together. When respiratory rates are inadequate, carbon dioxide begins to build up in the body. Too much carbon dioxide in the blood can very quickly lead to unconsciousness, coma, or death. Another overdose risk is the risk of choking on one’s own vomit when a person cannot wake up. This can result in asphyxiation and death as well.
If someone does manage to survive an overdose, they may be left with permanent brain damage or other physical disabilities.
Depressants are prescribed legally for a variety of purposes, but unfortunately, their mere use can also result in addiction, abuse, and dependence. Depressants help to alleviate the symptoms associated with a variety of illnesses and disorders. Often, the “high” produced by these drugs becomes enjoyable. At the very least, the reduction in symptoms is enough to make a person want to continue taking the medication as long as possible. Increased use of depressant medications eventually leads to increased tolerance, which requires higher doses be taken to get the desired results. With time, it becomes harder and harder or even impossible to get or feel the same high (or symptom relief).
Once a person reaches this state, the ability to stop taking the drug is nonexistent. Even a mere reduction in dosing produces highly undesirable and even dangerous effects. At this point, an addict will continue taking the drug just to avoid the symptoms of withdrawal. They may also lie, cheat, and steal (or do other things they may not ordinarily do) just to keep a supply of the drug on hand. At this point, rehab is not only helpful but likely a life-saving necessity.
Treatment for Depressant Addiction
Withdrawal from abuse or addiction to CNS depressants should be done only under medical supervision. Many of the withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous and even deadly if not medically supervised. Symptoms from suddenly stopping or “stopping cold turkey” can vary depending on a variety of factors, including the length of use, age, overall health, type of medication abused, and pre-existing medical conditions. Withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, nightmares, tremors, increased respiration and pulse, abnormal blood pressure, fevers, seizure, and vomiting. Coma, death, and suicide have also been reported in extreme cases.
Detox from depressant abuse “on your own” is not recommended. If you are struggling with dependence or addiction to depressants, treatment at a residential program such as that offered here at The Hills should be considered. We have a highly trained team of medical providers who are experienced with how to treat withdrawal and understand the challenging nature of detox. Do not walk this path alone. Call us at The Hills today.