Sedatives are central nervous system (CNS) depressant drugs primarily used as a sleep-inducing hypnotics, anxiolytics, muscle relaxants, and anticonvulsants Sedatives are used to treat varying conditions; a few common examples include anxiety, tension, seizures, panic disorders and sleep disorders. Most sedatives that are used for recreational purposes have been diverted from medical use.
There are three main classes of sedative medications:
Barbiturates: These drugs can be taken on their own or along with anesthesia. They’re sometimes used to treat seizure disorders. Some examples of barbiturates include Nembutal (pentobarbital) and phenobarbital.
Benzodiazepines: These drugs are also used to treat seizures, as well as for muscle spasms, and anxiety before medical procedures. Some examples of benzodiazepines include Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), Librium (chlordiazepoxide), Halcion (triazolam), Serax (oxazepam), and Klonopin (clonazepam).
Rohypnol (flunitrazepam) is a short-acting benzodiazepine that is 10 times stronger than Valium. Rohypnol has been used as a “date rape” drug, and is no longer legal in the United States.
“Z-drug” sleep medications: These drugs act on a specific type of receptor in the central nervous system called BZ1, which makes their action as a sleep aid very targeted. Some examples of “Z-drug” medications include Ambien (zolpidem), Lunesta (eszopiclone), and Sonata (zaleplon).
Hallucinations and psychosis have been reported in some people who take these drugs, and they’re not intended for long-term use.
How do they work?
Sedatives work by modifying certain nerve communications in your central nervous system (CNS) to your brain. In this case, they relax your body by slowing down brain activity. Specifically, sedatives make the neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) work overtime. GABA is responsible for slowing down your brain. By upping its level of activity in the CNS, sedatives allow GABA to produce a much stronger effect on your brain activity.
Effects of Sedatives
The effects of sedatives can last anywhere from a couple of hours to more than a day. Generally, sedatives cause physical depression, muscular relaxation and sedation; due to the varying types of sedatives, there is a range of other effects depending on which substance has been taken. Sedatives depress most body functions, so they greatly impact the ability to drive, operate machinery and participate in tasks requiring muscle coordination. An individual who is under the influence of a sedative, especially if in combination with another drug, should never drive. Here are some effects of sedatives:
- Feeling of relaxation
- Reduced anxiety
- Lowered inhibitions
- Reduced intensity of physical sensations
- Slurred speech
- Shallow breathing
- Slowed heart rate
- Muscle incoordination
- Reduced dexterity
- Impaired learning during period the sedative is active
- Interruptions in memory
Sometimes unexpected paradoxical side effects occur, such as anxiety, nightmares and hostility.
Mixing with Other Substances
Though sedatives should never be mixed with other substances, they are particularly dangerous when mixed with any other controlled substances that makes a person drowsy; this includes other sedatives/depressants such as alcohol, cold medicines, and opiates (Codeine, Heroin). Fatal suppression of breathing can occur if two sedating substances are mixed. If someone is difficult to rouse and you suspect they have used sedatives, seek medical help immediately.
If an individual has become dependent on a sedative, even if just for a few months, withdrawal can be severe. The severity of withdrawal increases as the dose and duration of use increases. A sedative dependent individual should taper off the drug, as seizures or even death can occur if withdrawal is too sudden. Other withdrawal symptoms generally include the magnification or recurrence of the original symptoms being treated.
Dependence develops depending on your body’s tolerance to the drug. It can happen over a few months or as quickly as a few weeks or less. Older adults may be more susceptible to certain sedatives, such as benzodiazepines, than younger people.
Even if you’re taking small doses of sedatives as prescribed by your doctor, you can still take extra care to make sure you stay safe:
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol also works like a sedative, so drinking and taking a sedative at the same time can compound the effects and lead to dangerous, life-threatening symptoms, such as loss of consciousness or stopping breathing.
- Don’t mix sedatives together or with other medications that have similar effects. Mixing sedatives together or taking them with other medications that cause drowsiness, such as antihistamines, can lead to harmful side effects, even overdose.
- Don’t take sedatives while pregnant without consulting a doctor. Sedatives in high doses can harm a fetus unless taken in a controlled medical environment.
- Don’t smoke marijuana. Using marijuana may actually reduce the effects of sedatives, particularly ones used for anesthesia. A 2019 study found that marijuana users needed a higher dose of sedatives to get the same effects as a regular dose for someone who doesn’t use marijuana.