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

There has been a recent increase in sedative prescriptions. Doctors prescribe sedatives to treat conditions such as:

Sedatives are drugs that people commonly misuse. Misusing sedatives and prolonging their use may lead to dependency and eventual withdrawal symptoms.

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

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Sedatives have numerous clinical uses. For example, they can induce sedation before surgical procedures, and this can range from mild sedation to general anesthesia.

Doctors also give sedatives and analgesics to individuals to reduce anxiety and provide pain relief before and after procedures.

Obstetric anesthesiologists may also give sedatives to people experiencing distress or restlessness during labor.

Because of their ability to relieve physical stress and anxiety and promote relaxation, doctors may also prescribe sedatives to 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 sedatives that people commonly use.

Barbiturates

Barbiturates help relieve anxiety and treat seizures.

Examples of barbiturates include:

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

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines treat various conditions, including:

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

Examples of benzodiazepines include:

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

Hypnotics

Also known as nonbenzodiazepine sleep medications or Z-drugs, hypnotics are similar to benzodiazepines but cause fewer side effects. Doctors typically use hypnotics to treat sleep disorders.

Examples of hypnotics include:

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

First generation antihistamines

Some antihistamines have sedating properties and are useful in treating mild sleep problems.

Antihistamines are available over the counter and include:

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

Others

Other medications slow brain activity and have sedating effects using different mechanisms than those that sedatives utilize. These include:

Some examples of these prescription medications include:

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

The inhibition of brain activity causes a person to become more relaxed, drowsy, and calm. Sedatives also allow GABA to have a stronger inhibitory effect on the brain.

Although sedatives have intended clinical effects, they may also cause some unwanted short-term side effects, including:

  • difficulties with focus and concentration
  • memory loss
  • slow reaction times
  • impaired depth and distance perception
  • an inability to feel pain
  • confusion
  • impaired judgment
  • slurred speech
  • low blood pressure

The long-term use of sedatives may cause:

  • anxiety
  • chronic fatigue
  • weight gain
  • depression
  • thoughts of suicide

People taking sedatives need to be cautious when using cannabis since the drug can dampen the effects of sedatives. One 2019 study suggests that people who use cannabis regularly require higher doses of sedatives.

People taking sedatives who plan to become pregnant should talk with a doctor. Another 2019 study indicates that the use of antianxiety medications during early pregnancy increases the risk of preeclampsia and may also lead to preterm birth and a low birth weight.

Misusing sedatives, which means taking them in amounts or ways other than what the doctor prescribed, can have detrimental effects for a person, including overdose.

Combining sedatives with other depressants can cause a combined and much more significant effect. In 2018, 899 people ages 15–24 years died from overusing prescription drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The majority of these deaths occurred as a result of taking benzodiazepines with opioid medications.

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

Alcohol is another potent depressant that may interact with and increase the effects of sedatives, causing increased sedation and more significant impairment. The effects could slow down 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 sedative use can also cause dependence. It is important to note that dependence does not only happen in people who misuse sedatives. It also affects people who take them exactly as the doctor prescribed.

Because their body has become used to the sedative’s effects, a person may also develop a tolerance to the drug or get a reduced effect from it. As a result, they may need higher doses to achieve the same initial effect.

If someone develops a dependence on a drug, they may experience withdrawal if they stop taking it.

People who suddenly stop taking sedatives may experience withdrawal symptoms. These can happen rapidly, be severe, and even be life threatening. Withdrawal symptoms may appear as early as 12–24 hours after the person’s last dose.

Withdrawal symptoms may include:

People who worry about becoming dependent on sedatives can try other options to manage their condition, such as:

  • Lifestyle changes: Proper nutrition, regular exercise, and good sleep hygiene may help decrease anxiety, improve overall health and well-being, and enhance sleep.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): One 2020 study suggests that CBT and yoga are both effective in managing late-life worry in older adults. They were also effective in improving the sleep of shift workers.
  • Yoga: Yoga and meditation may 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 may 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 — may help improve sleep. A 2021 study suggests that taking magnesium may improve sleep duration and quality.

People use sedatives for a variety of clinical purposes. However, these drugs are prone to misuse and may cause severe side effects.

People taking sedatives must communicate with a doctor to prevent adverse side effects, including dependence and withdrawal. People who are planning to take sedatives should first ask a doctor for possible alternatives.