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Explore the class of drugs known as depressants in this lesson. Learn more about the different kinds of depressants, how they are used in the medical field, and how they influence the central nervous system.

What are Depressants?

Have you ever wondered why your body seems to relax after having a few drinks? Maybe you’ve wondered why people pass out after a night of heavy drinking? It’s because alcohol is a depressant.

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Some depressants, like alcohol, are used recreationally by people who want to relax. While depressants can be used safely, they are dangerous if used inappropriately, and many are available only by prescription or even illegal. So, what exactly are depressants?At the root of the word ‘depressant’ is depress.

When we’re talking about drugs, this doesn’t mean to feel sad or down. Instead, ‘depress’ means to reduce your level of activity – this is exactly what a depressant does. Depressants are drugs that slow down the activity of the central nervous system. By decreasing the electrical activity in the brain, depressants produce a calming effect in the body and slow down the brain’s normal functioning.

Depressants can decrease your level of awareness, lower your pulse and heart rate, and reduce breathing. For these reasons, depressants are also referred to as ‘downers’.Depressants can cause relaxation and calmness in smaller doses, which can result in a reduction in anxiety and lower inhibitions. Depressants taken in larger doses have some serious consequences, including complete loss of consciousness, loss of senses, slurred speech, respiratory depression, and even death.

Types of Depressants

You’ve probably used depressants in the past, maybe without realizing. For example, if you’ve ever had a prescription for insomnia or anxiety, you’ve likely used a depressant.

Because of their calming properties, doctors prescribe depressants to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. Depressants are useful in treating seizure disorders because they reduce the electrical activity in the brain. At higher doses, depressants can be used as general anesthetics.

Let’s look at some of the more common type of depressant drugs, including barbiturates, benzodiazepines, ethanol, opioids, cannabis, and flunitrazepam:1. Barbiturates:Barbiturates are created from barbituric acid. Barbiturates have sedative and hypnotic properties, which means they reduce anxiety and induce sleep. Some common barbiturates are:

  • Luminal (phenobarbital) – used to prevent seizures
  • Amytal sodium (amobarbital) – used to treat sleep problems
  • Seconal (secobarbital) – short-term treatment for insomnia

2. Benzodiazepines:Like barbiturates, benzodiazepines have both sedative and hypnotic properties.

Benzodiazepines also decrease muscle tone. You may have seen commercials for common benzodiazepines like Xanax. Some common benzodiazepines are:

  • Xanax (alprazolam) – used to treat anxiety and panic disorder
  • Valium (diazepam) – used to treat anxiety and panic disorder, seizures, and muscle spasms
  • Klonopin (clonazepam) – used to prevent seizures

3. Ethanol:You probably know ethanol by a different name: alcohol. Chances are that you are familiar with the effects of alcohol.

After a few drinks, alcohol reduces inhibition, impairs judgment, and impairs coordination. After many drinks, alcohol can lead to loss of memory, loss of consciousness, and even death. The effects of alcohol are dependent on the amount of alcohol that is present in the bloodstream. This is known as blood-alcohol content. So the more alcohol you have present in your blood, the more dangerous the effects and the more strongly it reduces the electrical activity in your brain.4. Opioids:Have you ever been prescribed pain medication after surgery? If so, you were prescribed an opioid.

Opioids are drugs that bind to opioid receptors, which block the perception of pain. These receptors can be found in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. Some commonly prescribed opioid pain-relievers are codeine, morphine, and oxycodone.

Heroin, a highly addictive illegal street drug, is also an opioid. Heroin causes a strong rush of euphoria shortly after it is used.5. Cannabis:Cannabis is created from the cannabis plant.

Also known as marijuana or hash, it can cause confusion, memory loss, and feelings of euphoria. Cannabis can also slow your reaction time and increase pulse, heart rate, and appetite. At higher doses, cannabis can cause hallucinations, delusions, disorientation, and decreased consciousness.6. Flunitrazepam:Have you ever been warned to watch out for predators who put date rape drugs in drinks? If so, then you are already familiar with the effects of flunitrazepam.

Flunitrazepam is an illegal drug in the United States. Also referred to as Rohypnol, it is a very powerful sedative that can last for several hours. Rohypnol can also cause temporary memory loss and problems with the stomach. Rohypnol can make its user completely unresponsive and has been used on victims of sexual assault. This is why Rohypnol has been referred to as the ‘date rape drug’.

Important Facts About Depressants

All depressants have the potential for abuse.

People who use depressants over a long period of time develop tolerance, which means that they will have to take increasingly larger amounts of the drugs to get the same effects. Withdrawal symptoms may also occur after people stop taking depressants. Multiple depressants should not be combined. Doing so will multiply the effects of the drugs, which increases the risk of overdosing and death.

Lesson Summary

Depressants are drugs that slow down the activity of the central nervous system.

Depressants are useful in treating many medical conditions, including insomnia, anxiety, and seizures. There are several different types of depressants, including barbiturates, benzodiazepines, alcohol, opioids, cannabis, and Rohypnol. Depressants should never be mixed, as doing so will cause the effects of the drugs to multiply.

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Recall what depressants are and how they affect your body
  • Explain why depressants are sometimes prescribed by doctors
  • Identify and describe common types of depressants

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