Downer drugs are CNS (central nervous system) depressants that reduce activity in the brain and body. These drugs can increase the production of the neurochemical GABA, a transmitter that is responsible for feelings of relaxation and drowsiness.
Traditionally, the term “downer” most often referred to barbiturates or hypnotic sleep aids, but can refer to any substance (even alcohol!) that has properties that depress the CNS. CNS depressants are commonly prescribed to treat a variety of conditions, such as anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and seizures.
Substances that are categorized as CNS depressants include the following:
- Benzodiazepines (benzos)
- Sleep aids/hypnotics
- Muscle Relaxers
The main thing that all downer drugs have in common is the capacity to decrease activity in the CNS. However, there are fundamental differences among substances within this classification of drugs. Perhaps most significantly, some are generally believed to be safer than others and have less potential for abuse and addiction. That said, all can still be subjected to misuse, and most can lead to some level of dependence.
Alcohol is by far the most commonly consumed and abused drug worldwide, primarily because unlike most other drugs, it is legal for purchase and readily available. It’s also easy to make at home. The amount of alcohol ingested and the ABV (alcohol by volume) directly affects the extent to which the CNS becomes depressed. However, alcohol use can also increase the amount of feel-good neurochemical dopamine in the brain. As a result, the drinker may be feeling more social, euphoric, and even energetic—at least at first.
For this reason, many individuals don’t realize that alcohol is fundamentally a depressant. Unfortunately, however, euphoric effects are only temporary, and as a person continues to consume alcohol, they will eventually be overtaken by alcohol’s depressant properties. As a result, instead of feeling happy and relaxed, adverse emotional reactions such as anger and agitation may develop. In extreme instances, this can be followed by profoundly impaired motor and cognitive skills and, ultimately, life-threatening CNS depression and alcohol poisoning.
Heavy, chronic alcohol abuse often also can result in tolerance, in which the individual will need to drink more to experience the desired effects. Dependence and full-blown may closely follow. Those who develop dependence will then encounter unpleasant and sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms, including hallucinations or seizures, when they attempt to quit. Addiction is also hallmarked by a person engaging in compulsive drug-seeking behavior, despite knowing the problems that these actions are causing.
Barbiturates are a type of downer drug that used to be more commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. In recent years, however, they have been replaced instead with benzodiazepines, which are safer and have less potential for overdose. Common barbiturates include phenobarbital, pentobarbital, and secobarbital. Many celebrities and notable individuals have died from overdoses related to barbiturates, perhaps among the most famous being Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix.
Barbarbiturates have been associated with feelings of euphoria and relaxation even when ingested in small doses, which can encourage some individuals to abuse them. Barbiturates also have a dramatic impact on sleep, and that can lead to the suppression of valuable REM sleep.
As noted, benzos are now generally considered to be less addictive and risky to use than barbiturates and have, therefore, become more popular. However, barbiturates are still sometimes administered in treatment centers to treat alcohol or specific drug withdrawal symptoms and prevent seizures.
Benzos may be prescribed to relieve anxiety and panic attacks, as well as treat seizures and sleep disorders. Common benzos include alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin) and diazepam (Valium).
Benzodiazepines are very effective at addressing anxiety and insomnia because of their relaxation, sedating effects. Although they are considered to be very relatively safe when used as prescribed for short-term treatment of certain disorders, prolonged use/abuse can lead to the development of tolerance, dependence, and addiction.
Like alcohol, benzo withdrawal can prove to be life-threatening, and seizures and other CNS overactivity can manifest. For this exact reason, patients are often put on a tapering schedule in which their dose is slowly reduced over time.
Prescription sleep aids (also referred to as sedatives or hypnotics) include non-benzodiazepine medications, such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata. These drugs have been specifically designed to treat insomnia and other sleep disturbances. Prescription sleep aids work differently than barbiturates or benzos in the way they stimulate the production of GABA.
Unlike benzos, sedatives do not directly relieve anxiety. They have been associated with fewer side effects and a lower risk of addiction than benzos. Despite this, prolonged use and abuse can still lead to some level of dependence.
Muscle relaxers are used to treat short-term muscle problems, such as tension, as well as chronic pain disorders that involve muscle spasms. These medicines work to reduce muscle tone, relax tight muscles, and alleviate pain and discomfort.
Like sedatives, muscle relaxers generally have a lower potential for abuse and addiction than many other depressants, including benzos. That said, if they are used in combination with other downer drugs, the effects of each substance can be amplified and result in profound CNS depression.
Antipsychotics are prescription medications prescribed to treat mental health conditions that may lead to psychotic symptoms. These include severe mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and Tourette’s syndrome. Antipsychotics may also be administered in some cause to relieve severe depression or anxiety.
Antipsychotics are thought to have less potential for abuse and addiction than many other prescription downer drugs and alcohol. Nonetheless, like muscle relaxers, using them in conjunction with other CNS depressants may be risky.
Opioids, while technically classified as painkillers, also have some depressant properties. Opioids come in a variety of forms, including prescription medications (e.g., oxycodone and hydrocodone) as well as illicit street drugs (e.g., fentanyl). Although opioids are considered to be very effective at relieving moderate-severe pain, there can be many disadvantages to using them.
For example, many opioids, such as heroin and oxycodone, are highly addictive, and use or abuse can rapidly result in dependence and addiction. What’s more, each year, opioid overdoses take the lives of tens of thousands of people in the United States alone.
Effects of Downers
In addition to feelings of relaxation and drowsiness, downer drugs can also lead to a variety of other effects, many of which are undesirable, and may include the following:
- Dilated pupils
- Confusion or disorientation
- Slowed heart rate
- Depressed breathing
- Sleepiness or fatigue
- Impaired concentration
- Impaired memory/blackouts
- Delayed response time
- Slurred speech
- Lowered inhibitions
- Impaired coordination
- Impaired judgment
Long-term use can also lead to other unwanted effects, which depend on the type of depressant used and the severity of the abuse. Chronic users of depressants often develop a tolerance and require increasing amounts to achieve the drugs’ sought-after effects. Other long-term issues may include the following:
- Chronic fatigue
- Weight gain
- Sexual dysfunction
- Breathing/sleeping issues
- Suicidal thoughts
- Physical dependence
- Withdrawal symptoms
Another possible complication of CNS depressant abuse is overdose. Heavy use of many depressants, especially with other depressants, can lead to profound respiratory depression, seizures, coma, and death. Combining downer drugs with “uppers,” or stimulating drugs such as meth or cocaine, can be extremely hazardous as well and also result in a life-threatening overdose.
Help for Addiction Is Available
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If you are struggling with addiction, we urge you to contact us today to discuss treatment options. Are you ready to reclaim your life, free from the abuse of toxic substances? If so, the professionals at Just Believe Recovery are here to help you begin your journey to lifelong sobriety and wellness!