Depressants are so called because they depress, or slow down, central nervous system functioning. This causes physical depression, lowered inhibitions, sedation, sleep, anesthesia, unconsciousness and potentially coma and death. Common depressants include several classes of drugs, both prescription drugs and controlled substances. When prescribed medically, these drugs treat anxiety, sleep problems, acute agitation, pain, muscle spasms and other conditions. People abuse depressants to gain relief from emotional pain, to achieve a rush or euphoria, to calm nerves, or to stave off withdrawal symptoms, among other reasons. Depressants are often abused in conjunction with other drugs.
Alcohol is the most commonly used depressant. Its physiological effects include disinhibition, dizziness and talkativeness. At larger doses, effects include slurred speech, disrupted sleep, nausea and vomiting. According to drugfree.org, even at low doses, alcohol significantly impairs judgment and coordination, enough to make driving unsafe. Additionally, even at low to moderate dosage, domestic violence and child abuse incidence increases. According to Haight-Ashubry Detox Clinic experts Darryl Inaba and William Cohen in "Uppers, Downers, All Arounders," research indicates that for a variety of physiological reasons, women face much greater risk than men of numerous health problems as a result of even low to moderate drinking. Among alcoholics, women have death rates twice as high as men.
Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders and somewhat commonly for sleep problems, to treat alcohol or heroin withdrawal, and to relax skeletal muscles. This class of drugs includes Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Klonopin. They affect the body and mind similarly to alcohol, lowering inhibitions, slowing down psychomotor skills, sedating and causing muscle relaxation. They can also cause memory loss, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms and dependence. They pose significant danger when used with alcohol.
Barbituate usage peaked in the 1940s and '50s, and abuse of these drugs began in the 1960s. According to Inaba and Cohen, barbituates induce a feeling of disinhibited euphoria and have a stimulating effect initially, before becoming sedating. Excessive or long-term use can lead to lasting changes in mood, personality and behavior. Barbituates carry an extremely high risk of overdose and dependence.
Opiates include both prescription medications such as codeine, Vicodin, OxyContin and Demerol, as well as illegal drugs such as heroin and opium. According to Inaba and Cohen, opiate users experience decreased anxiety, a feeling of serenity and a deadening of unwanted emotions. They also increase dopamine temporarily in the brain, which can trigger the cycle of abuse, as the depleted dopamine after usage can cause depression and emptiness, reinforcing the urge to take more opiates.
Other depressant drugs include gammahydroxybutyrate, or GHB. This drug acts rapidly and strongly to depress the central nervous system. Abused commonly in the 1970s and '80s, Quaaludes also belong to this class of drugs. Quaaludes carry a high risk of overdose and dependence. The sleep aid Ambien is a short-acting hypnotic drug. Skeletal muscle relaxants such as Flexeril and Robaxin are considered minor depressants, as are over-the-counter sleep aids and antihistamines. Lastly, inhalants can have a depressant effect on the central nervous system as well, with effects similar to alcohol but with much greater health risks.