Downer drugs are central nervous system (CNS) depressants that slow activity in the brain and body. These drugs work by increasing the production of the neurotransmitter GABA. This chemical messager functions to reduce the activity of the neurons to which it binds. This action results in effects such as relaxation and drowsiness and sometimes decreased inhibition.
Historically, “downer” is a term that most often referred to barbiturates or hypnotic sleep aids, but it can refer to any drug that has properties that depresses the CNS. CNS depressants are effective at treating a variety of conditions, such as insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, pain, and seizures.
Types of Downer Drugs
Substances that are classified as CNS depressants include the following:
- Benzodiazepines (benzos)
- Sleep aids
- Muscle Relaxers
One thing that all downer drugs have in common is the ability to reduce activity in the CNS. However, there are key differences among substances within this class of drugs. Perhaps most significantly, some are considered to be safer and have less potential for abuse and addiction than others. That said, all can still be subject to misuse, and most can result in some level of dependence.
Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in the world. The amount of alcohol and the ABV (alcohol by volume) directly influences the degree to which the CNS becomes depressed. However, alcohol consumption can also increase the level of the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain. This action can result in the drinker feeling more social, euphoric, and even energetic—at least initially.
For this reason, many people don’t realize that alcohol is fundamentally a depressant. Unfortunately, however, this temporary effect is eventually overtaken by alcohol’s depressant properties if the person drinks to excess. Instead of feeling good and relaxed, adverse emotional responses such as anger may develop. In extreme cases, this can be followed by life-threatening CNS depression and alcohol poisoning.
Excessive, long-term alcohol abuse often also leads to tolerance, dependence, and addiction. Those who develop dependence will then experience unpleasant and sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures, when they attempt to quit.
Barbiturates are a type of downer drug prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. Common barbiturates include phenobarbital, pentobarbital, and secobarbital. Barbiturates used to be considered a relatively safe depressant, but problems with misuse, addiction, and overdose rapidly began to surface after widespread use ensued. Perhaps most famously, actress Marilyn Monroe died from an overdose of barbiturates in 1962.
Barbarbiturates can induce feelings of euphoria and relaxation even when used in small doses, which can compel some to abuse them. Barbiturates also have a dramatic effect on sleep patterns that can result in suppressed REM sleep.
Benzos are now generally regarded as less addictive than barbiturates and far less likely to cause an overdose. For this reason, the rate in which barbiturates are commonly prescribed has reduced dramatically. However, they are still sometimes used by treatment centers to treat alcohol or certain drug withdrawal symptoms.
Benzos are commonly prescribed to reduce anxiety and panic attacks, as well as treat sleep disorders and seizures. Common benzos include alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium).
Benzodiazepines are very effective at treating anxiety and insomnia due to their sedating effects. Although they are considered safe when used as directed for short-term treatment, long-term use or abuse can result in the development of tolerance, dependence, and addiction.
As with other psychoactive substances, dependence results in withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation of use. Like alcohol, benzo withdrawal can be life-threatening, and seizures can manifest. For this reason, patients are often put on a tapering schedule in which their dose is gradually reduced over time.
Prescription sleep aids, which are also referred to as hypnotics, include non-benzodiazepine sedatives, such as Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta. These medications have been specifically designed to treat insomnia and other problems related to sleep. Prescription sleep aids work differently than benzos or barbiturates in how they stimulate GABA production.
Unlike benzos, sleep aids do not directly relieve anxiety. They are thought, however, to have fewer side effects and a lower risk of addiction than benzos. Despite this, long-term use and abuse can still result in some level of dependence.
Muscle relaxers are commonly used to treat acute muscle problems, such as tension, as well as chronic pain conditions that involve muscle spasms. These medications work to reduce muscle tone, relax tight muscles, and relieve pain and discomfort.
Like sleep aids, muscle relaxers generally have a lower potential for addiction than many other depressants, such as benzos. That said, if they are used in conjunction with other downers, effects can be compounded and result in profound CNS depression.
Antipsychotics are prescription drugs indicated for the treatment of mental health disorders with symptoms such as psychotic experiences. These disorders include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and Tourette’s syndrome. Antipsychotics may also be used to relieve severe depression or anxiety.
Antipsychotics have less potential for abuse and addiction than many other prescription downers and alcohol. Nevertheless, like muscle relaxers, using them in addition to other CNS depressants may be dangerous.
A Word on Opioids
Opioids are technically classified as painkillers, but they also have some depressant properties. There are a variety of different opioids, including prescription medications, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, as well as illicit street drugs, such as heroin.
All opiates and opioids are chemically similar and, therefore, have similar effects. They do, however, vary tremendously in terms of potency and addictive potential. Although opioids are considered very effective at treating pain, there can be many drawbacks to using them.
For example, many opioids, such as heroin and oxycodone, are highly addictive, and use or abuse can rapidly lead to dependence and addiction. What’s more, each year, opioid overdoses take the lives of tens of thousands of people in the U.S.
Effects of Downer Drugs
In addition to relaxation and drowsiness, downer drugs can also induce a variety of other effects, many of which are adverse. These include the following:
- Low blood pressure and dizziness
- Dilated pupils
- Confusion or disorientation
- Slowed heart rate
- Depressed breathing
- Sleepiness or fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Impaired memory
- Delayed reaction time
- Slurred speech
- Reduced inhibitions
- Impaired coordination
- Impaired judgment
Chronic use can also lead to other negative effects, which depend on the type of depressant used and the intensity of the abuse. Long-term users of depressants often develop a tolerance and require increasing amounts to experience the desired effects. Other long-term effects may include the following:
- Chronic fatigue
- Weight gain
- Sexual dysfunction
- Breathing and sleep issues
- Suicidal ideations
- Chemical dependence
- Withdrawal symptoms
Another potential complication of CNS depressant abuse is overdose. Excessive use of many depressants, especially in conjunction with other depressants, can result in profound respiratory depression, seizures, and death. Combining downer drugs with “uppers,” which are stimulant drugs, can be extremely dangerous as well and result in a life-threatening overdose.
Help for Addiction Is Available
Recovery in Tune is a licensed addiction treatment center that offers comprehensive programs in outpatient and intensive outpatient formats. Our programs are designed to address the underlying causes of addiction and teach people ways of better coping with cravings and the day-to-day stressors of life.
Those who struggle with addiction are urged to contact us as soon as possible to discuss treatment options. Are you ready to reclaim your life and be free from the abuse of drugs or alcohol? If so, we are here to help you begin your journey to long-lasting sobriety and wellness!