Examples, uses, effects and more

Sedatives, or central nervous system depressants, are a group of drugs that slow brain activity. People use these medications to help them calm down, feel more relaxed, and sleep better.

There was one recent increase in prescriptions of sedatives. Doctors prescribe sedatives to treat conditions such as:

Sedatives are drugs that people commonly abuse. Overuse of sedatives and prolonged use can lead to addiction and possible withdrawal symptoms.

This article examines the different types of sedatives available and their possible uses. It also examines the potential risks associated with their use and some alternative options.

Sedatives have many clinical uses. For example, they can induce sedation before surgery, and it can range from mild sedation to general anesthesia.

Doctors also give people sedatives and pain relievers to reduce anxiety and relieve pain before and after procedures.

Obstetric anesthesiologists may also administer sedatives to people with distress or agitation during labor.

Because of their ability to relieve physical stress and anxiety and promote relaxation, doctors may also prescribe sedatives for people with insomnia, anxiety disorders, and muscle spasms.

People with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and seizures may also benefit from prescription sedatives.

The following is a list of commonly used sedatives.

Barbiturates

Barbiturates help relieve anxiety and treat seizures.

Examples of barbiturates are:

  • phenobarbital (Luminal)
  • amobarbital (Amytal Sodium)
  • butalbital (Fiorinal)
  • pentobarbital (Nembutal)

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines treat a variety of conditions, including:

  • panic attacks
  • insomnia
  • convulsions
  • depression
  • painful muscle spasms

Examples of benzodiazepines are:

  • diazepam (Valium)
  • alprazolam (Xanax)
  • clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)

Hypnotics

Also known as non-benzodiazepine sleeping pills or Z drugs, hypnotics are similar to benzodiazepines but cause fewer side effects. Doctors generally use hypnotics to treat trouble sleeping.

Here are some examples of hypnotics:

  • zolpidem (Ambien)
  • eszopiclone (Lunesta)
  • zaleplon (Sonata)

First generation antihistamines

Some antihistamines have sedative properties and are helpful in treating mild sleep problems.

Antihistamines are available over the counter and include:

  • diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
  • brompheniramine (Dimetapp)

Others

Other drugs slow down brain activity and have sedative effects using different mechanisms from those used by sedatives. These include:

Here are some examples of these prescription drugs:

Sedatives work by increasing the activity of the brain chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This can slow down brain activity in general.

Inhibiting brain activity makes a person more relaxed, drowsy, and calm. Sedatives also allow GABA to have a stronger inhibitory effect on the brain.

Although sedatives have desirable clinical effects, they can also cause unwanted short-term side effects, including:

  • difficulty concentrating and concentrating
  • memory loss
  • slow reaction times
  • altered perception of depth and distance
  • an inability to feel pain
  • confusion
  • impaired judgment
  • speech disorders
  • Low blood pressure

Long-term use of sedatives can cause:

  • anxiety
  • chronic fatigue
  • weight gain
  • depression
  • suicidal thoughts

People taking sedatives should be careful when using cannabis, as the drug may lessen the effects of sedatives. A 2019 study suggests that people who use cannabis regularly need higher doses of sedatives.

People taking sedatives who plan to become pregnant should see a doctor. Another study from 2019 indicates that the use of anti-anxiety drugs in early pregnancy increases the risk of preeclampsia and can also lead to premature birth and low birth weight.

Abuse of sedatives, that is, taking them in amounts or ways different from those prescribed by the doctor, can have harmful effects on a person, including overdose.

The combination of sedatives with other depressants can cause a combined effect and much greater. In 2018, 899 people aged 15 to 24 died from prescription drug overuse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The majority of these deaths occurred as a result of taking benzodiazepines with opioid drugs.

A 2017 study suggests that people taking both opioids and benzodiazepines have a higher risk of opioid overdose and emergency room admission. A similar study suggests that people who take both types of drugs have a 10-fold higher risk of dying from an overdose compared to those who take only opioids.

Alcohol is another potent depressant that can interact with and increase the effects of sedatives, causing increased sedation and further impairment. The effects could slow or even stop a person’s breathing and heart function.

Some other potential consequences of misuse include:

  • impaired function while engaging in activities such as driving
  • unconsciousness
  • death

Long-term use of sedatives can also be addictive. It is important to note that addiction does not only occur in people who abuse sedatives. It also affects people who take them exactly as prescribed by the doctor.

Because their body has become accustomed to the effects of the sedative, a person may also develop tolerance to the drug or have a reduced effect. As a result, they may need higher doses to achieve the same initial effect.

If a person becomes addicted to a drug, they may experience withdrawal if they stop taking it.

People who suddenly stop taking sedatives may have withdrawal symptoms. These can happen quickly, be serious and even life threatening. Withdrawal symptoms can appear as early as 12 to 24 hours after a person’s last dose.

Withdrawal symptoms can include:

People who are worried about becoming dependent on sedatives may try other options to manage their condition, such as:

  • Lifestyle changes: Good nutrition, regular exercise, and good sleep hygiene can help reduce anxiety, improve overall health and well-being, and improve sleep.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): A Study 2020 suggests that CBT and yoga are both effective in managing end-of-life concerns in the elderly. They were also effective in improving the sleep of shift workers.
  • Yoga: Yoga and meditation can promote relaxation, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve sleep. In one study, doing prenatal yoga during pregnancy reduced anxiety and improved sleep.
  • Relaxation techniques: Deep breathing, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and other relaxation techniques can help people cope with anxiety and stress.
  • Aromatherapy: A person can use essential oils such as lavender and chamomile to help them sleep and relax.
  • Supplements: Several supplements, including valerian root, melatonin, passionflower, and magnesium, can help improve sleep. A 2021 study suggests that taking magnesium may improve the duration and quality of sleep.

People use sedatives for a variety of clinical purposes. However, these drugs are subject to misuse and can cause serious side effects.

People taking sedatives should contact a doctor to prevent unwanted side effects, including addiction and withdrawal. People who are considering taking sedatives should first ask a doctor for possible alternatives.

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