certain pills and drinks are depressants and slow the central nervous system
Discover Recovery's Blog

Discover Recovery's Blog


Depressants such as barbiturates and alcohol work on the Central Nervous System just as stimulants do.  But instead of speeding it up, a depressant works to slow down brain and neural activity. This class of drugs includes barbiturates, benzodiazepines, sedatives, and alcohol. Alcohol is the most well know of these. It’s also the most commonly abused substance in the US.

Depressant Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol is unique because it’s clinically defined as a depressant, but it also has stimulant effects on the brain.. These stimulant effects usually happen to a person first. This is what allows someone to “loosen up” and lower their social inhibitions. As time passes, the sedative qualities of alcohol begin to occur. Often times, alcohol actually slows the nervous system down enough to bring on noticeable effects. These include things like slurred speech, the inability to react accurately, unstable movements, and disturbed perceptions.

Other consequences of alcohol consumption include the inability to think rationally, lowered inhibitions, and clouded judgement. It’s possible to ingest enough alcohol to actually cause coma, respiratory failure, and death. The risk increases the more someone drinks and the more quickly they drink.

Dangerous Withdrawals

Depressants, like opioids, are physically addictive.  People that abuse depressants or drink alcohol frequently generally develop a physical tolerance to the substance. Often, these people become dependent on the substance just like opioid users. This means that they experience withdrawal effects when they don’t use the substance.

However, the detoxification process from depressants is much more dangerous than detox from opioids. Since the CNS has become used to the presence of the depressant, the CNS becomes hyperactive without it. The most severe effect of alcohol withdrawal is a condition called Delirium Tremens (DT’s). It involves tremors, shaking, and sweating. Sometimes it can progress to seizures and hallucinations.

Coming off of other depressants such as barbiturates or benzodiazepines produces very similar effects. In general, depressant withdrawal causes electrolyte and phosphate levels to lower. In severe cases, this can bring on heart attacks, arrhythmias, coma, muscle weakness, and complications with breathing. 

There are a few medications that help with alcohol withdrawal. Specifically, patients take other depressants and then taper off of them. Coming off of most CNS depressants will require this kind of treatment. Interestingly, some medical professionals choose not to use another substance that is similarly addictive to come off of depressants & alcohol. However, the general professional consensus is that a short taper is more beneficial than harmful. Due to the potential for severe fever and heart problems, it’s possible to die or suffer terrible long term effects from depressant withdrawal complications. That’s why most doctors believe in medical support for depressant withdrawal. Those in need can find this kind of support at a treatment center, or even an Emergency Room if necessary.

Depressants are Deadly

Back in 2017, almost 15 million Americans over the age of 12 were diagnosed with an Alcohol Use Disorder. Sadly, almost 4 million of them were unable to get treatment for it. Overall, around 88,000 people die every year in the US from alcohol related deaths. These numbers climb higher when we consider deaths from benzodiazepines and barbiturates. At one point, depressant withdrawal complications were the 3rd leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.  

If you or someone you love is struggling with any substance, you can call us at Discover Recovery to learn more about our top-notch treatment team. We offer safe, comfortable, medically assisted detox services for those who need it during alcohol and depressant withdrawal. We also have a 30 – 90 day residential treatment program on the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Our holistic treatment model works to help people addicted to any substance heal and build a new life.

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Fill out this form to contact us, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Kaye is a guest writer for Discover Recovery. She's lives in the Chicago, IL area where she's been in recovery since 2016.

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