Sedatives, tranquilizers, and depressants are common names for a group of drugs that slow activity in the central nervous system to relax you and facilitate sleep. The medications often describe benzodiazepines and prescription sleep aids that can treat insomnia and anxiety disorders. Sedatives have several medical uses, but they are frequently misused as recreational substances. They are similar to alcohol because they can facilitate an intoxicating high. But misusing them can lead to dependence and addiction. Learn more about sedative addiction and how it can be treated. 

What Is a Sedative?

Sedative-hypnotic drugs are a class of medications that treat insomnia and anxiety. The category includes barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and non-benzodiazepine sleep aids. Sedatives are also in a category of drugs called central nervous system depressants. Depressants slow activity in the brain to produce their effects. People with sleep problems, anxiety, and panic disorders may have biochemical or psychological problems that cause overactive nervous systems. Sedatives can slow down activity to promote rest and relaxation. 

Sedatives usually work with a chemical messenger in the brain called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is the brain’s primary sleep neurotransmitter. When it’s released, it binds to its receptors and opens a channel to a negative charge that shuts down some nervous system activity. Sedatives also bind to GABA receptors on a separate binding site from GABA. When GABA opens the channel, sedative drugs keep the channel open for longer, making the chemical messenger more effective. 

Different sedatives have different effects on the brain and body. Barbiturates are much more potent than other options. They were first introduced in the early 20th century and once used for various common uses, such as treating anxiety and insomnia. But their abuse potential and side effects profile made them potentially dangerous when used too often or in high doses. Benzodiazepines were introduced in the 1960s when they replaced barbiturates as first-line sedatives. Benzodiazepines are less likely to cause a deadly overdose and severe symptoms, but they can still be dangerous when misused. 

Today, non-benzodiazepine sedatives like Ambien (zolpidem) are used to treat sleep problems. These drugs, sometimes called Z-drugs, are milder than other sedatives. Antidepressants, which are not sedatives, are common first-line treatment options for anxiety, but benzodiazepines may be used in some cases.  

All sedatives have some potential for misuse and abuse. They can cause intoxicating effects that share similarities with alcohol. Effects include relaxation, euphoria, increased sociability, and inhibition release. They can also cause side effects like drowsiness, dizziness, passing out, and memory suppression. Sedatives can also be deadly when mixed with other substances, like opioids or alcohol. In high doses, or when the drugs are mixed, they can cause respiratory depression and a slow heart rate, which leads to oxygen deprivation. 

Barbiturates and benzodiazepines can lead to chemical dependence after a few weeks of regular use, depending on the specific drug. Barbiturates are more addictive, but benzodiazepines can also lead to substance use disorders. 

What Are the Signs of Sedative Addiction?

Sedative addiction can have several serious consequences in your life. Substance use disorders often take over your health, relationships, and almost every other part of your life. Addiction is also progressive, which means it can get worse over time if not treated. It’s important to address a sedative addiction as soon as possible, but it may be difficult to notice in someone else in the early stages. It’s also common for people with substance use disorders to deny a problem until it starts to cause clear consequences in their life. However, several signs and symptoms of sedative addiction are common. 

The DSM lists 11 symptoms of addiction. You may be diagnosed with a mild, moderate, or severe substance use disorder based on the number of these symptoms that apply to you. These symptoms include tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, trying and failing to cut back, and using the drug despite the psychological or physical danger or consequences. 

Addiction can also affect multiple areas of your life, leading to some notable signs. Your attempts to manage an addiction can also point to an addiction. Signs may include:

  • Money problems
  • Health issues
  • Doctor shopping 
  • Problems at school or work
  • Hiding drugs around the house
  • Lying about drug use
  • Using drugs alone and at odd times

Sedatives can cause some specific signs and symptoms because of how the drug affects your brain and body. A major indicator is the way it affects your sleep. Many sedatives are designed to be taken before bed and wear off by the morning. However, a sedative use disorder may mean taking the drug at odd hours, which can disrupt your normal sleep patterns. People with sedative addictions may sleep for long hours and at odd times. 

As you start to build a tolerance to sedatives, you may find it’s hard to get to sleep and that you need higher doses. Sedatives can also cause alcohol-like intoxication, including poor motor skills, impaired judgment, poor reaction time, and dizziness. 

Sedative withdrawal can also have some unique symptoms. If you skip a dose or stop using, rebound symptoms are common. These are symptoms that were previously managed by the drug, including insomnia and anxiety. Sedative withdrawal can also cause tremors, shaky hands, nausea, vomiting, sweating, increased heart rate, heart palpitations, and seizures. Sedatives and central nervous system depressants are among the most dangerous drugs during withdrawal. It’s usually not safe to quit cold turkey without consulting a doctor. 

What Is Involved in Sedative Addiction Treatment?

If you’ve realized you’ve developed a substance use disorder involving sedatives, the first step is to reach out for help. Sedative addiction may require help from a doctor, and you may need to start with a tapering process to avoid dangerous withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, it may be necessary to go through a detox program to help you get through withdrawal symptoms safely without relapse. 

Medical detox involves intensive inpatient treatment with 24-hour care from medical professionals. It may involve a tapering process or treatment with medications to help you avoid severe withdrawal symptoms. Detox may also involve therapies to address some of the underlying causes of your substance use disorder, including mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. 

When you complete detox, you may go through an inpatient treatment program. Inpatient and residential treatment also involve 24-hour care but at a slightly lower level of care than medical detox. Inpatient treatment involves medically monitored care, and residential treatment may involve clinically managed care. 

When you’re ready to live on your own safely, you may move on to outpatient treatment. Outpatient treatment is separated into three categories depending on the time you spend in treatment services each week. Partial hospitalization involves 20 or more hours of care, intensive outpatient treatment involves at least nine hours of care each week, and outpatient treatment involves fewer than nine hours of care each week. 

How Dangerous Are Sedatives?

Sedatives can be dangerous, depending on several factors, including the dose you take, the type of sedative, and whether it’s mixed with other substances. A high dose of any sedative causes unpleasant side effects, many of which can be dangerous. Plus, sedatives are known to inhibit certain nervous system functions, like your motor skills and reaction time. Misusing them can increase your risk of accidents and injuries, especially if you get behind the wheel of a vehicle. 

Barbiturates are the most likely sedative to cause life-threatening overdoses on their own. Benzodiazepines are less likely to cause deadly overdose symptoms unless they are taken in extremely high doses or mixed with other substances. Overdose symptoms are often the result of excessive nervous system depression. Your nervous system controls many unconscious functions that are vital to life. Sedatives can suppress some of these functions, including your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.  

In severe cases of sedative overdose, breathing is slowed or stopped, causing oxygen deprivation, loss of consciousness, coma, and death. Many cases of deadly sedative overdose involve more than one type of drug. Opioids or alcohol are often mixed with sedatives accidentally or on purpose to intensify their effects. However, mixing these drugs leads to potentiation, which is when similar drugs combine their effects to a dangerous degree.

Some sedatives can come with some long-term health risks, including chemical dependence and addiction. Like alcohol, some sedatives can be hard on your liver, and chronic misuse can lead to liver damage. 

Sedative Abuse Statistics

Sedatives are commonly misused substances often found in overdose deaths all over the country. Though, because they are usually not the solitary cause of overdose, they aren’t considered to have contributed as much to the addiction crisis as opioids or illicit drugs. Still, prescription sedatives were misused by 2.2% (6.2 million) of people 12 years old or older in the United States, according to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

The survey also found that 1.2 million people met the qualifications for a sedative use disorder in 2020. Around 235,000 were young adults between the ages of 18 and 25, and 73,000 were between 12 and 17.

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