Alcohol is the most commonly used substance throughout the world. Excessive drinking can cause serious health problems such as liver disease, dementia, neuropathy and cardiac disease, and can increase the likelihood of automobile accidents, sexual assault and illegal activity. Binge drinking is defined when an individual’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) increases to 0.08 grams percent or above. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks in about two hours for men, or four or more drinks in about two hours for women. Alcohol is one of the only depressants that would not be seen as a “drug depressant” but is still classified as a type of depressant because of its effects on consumers.
Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax), are commonly prescribed as short-term treatments for anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disorders. They have a very strong addiction potential and, if taken for a long period of time, should not be immediately stopped as this can result in life-threatening withdrawal seizures. Similar to alcohol, benzodiazepines increase GABA in the brain resulting in a decrease in arousal and stimulation.
Benzodiazepines can be divided into three classes: short, medium and long acting.
- Short-acting benzodiazepines include alprazolam and oxazepam, and will clear the body within five to 15 hours. Short-acting benzodiazepines, on the other hand, are commonly used to treat anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disorders on a short-term basis. They have higher addiction potentials and can cause withdrawal seizures if, after taking for a long duration, they are stopped immediately.
- Medium-acting benzodiazepines include estazolam, lorazepam and temazepam, and will clear the body within 10 to 20 hours.
- Long-acting benzodiazepines include flurazepam, diazepam, clonazepam and chlordiazepoxide. Long-acting benzodiazepines have less addictive potential and are commonly used to wean individuals off of short-acting benzodiazepines and alcohol. Additionally, they can be used for the treatment of seizure disorders.
Barbiturates are similar in structure to benzodiazepines and also have strong addiction potential, but they are not as common in medical practice. Barbiturates include mephobarbital (Mebaral), phenobarbital (Luminal Sodium) and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal). They have a higher addictive potential than benzodiazepines and are used in surgical procedures as anesthetics.
Non-benzodiazepine sleep medications
Non-benzodiazepine sleep medications include zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta) and zaleplon (Sonata). They have a different chemical structure, but act on some of the same brain receptors as benzodiazepines. They are less addictive than benzodiazepines and do not cause seizures if suddenly stopped. Therefore, individuals do not need to be weaned off of these sleep aids. Like all sleep aids, these should be used for short-term use only.
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Side effects of depressants
All depressants cause side effects. The Non-benzodiazepine sleep medications have fewer side effects and less addictive potential than the other classes mentioned above. Side effects of depressants include:
- Balance problems
- Sluggish speech
- Decreased mental arousal
- Slowed reaction times
- Decreased inhibition