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NIDA. (2011, February 1). Word of the Day: Depressants. Retrieved from

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Sara Bellum
February 1 2011

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “depressants?” Maybe “depressed” or “sad?” But the drugs called depressants aren’t called that because they’re depressing in the emotional sense.

Depressants slow down (or “depress”) the normal activity that goes on in the brain. Alcohol is a depressant.

Doctors often prescribe central nervous system (CNS) depressants to patients who are anxious or can’t sleep. When used as directed, CNS depressants are safe and helpful for people who need them.

Types of CNS Depressants

CNS depressants can be divided into three main groups:

  • Barbiturates, which are used to treat some forms of epilepsy
  • Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax), which can be used to treat severe stress, panic attacks, convulsions, and sleep disorders
  • Sleep medications (Ambien, Sonata, Lunesta), which, as the name suggests, are used to help people with diagnosed sleep problems

How They Work

Most CNS depressants affect the brain in the same way—they enhance the activity of the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is a neurotransmitter, one of the naturally occurring chemicals in the brain that sends messages between cells. GABA works by slowing down brain activity.

Although different classes of CNS depressants work in unique ways, they ultimately increase GABA activity, which produces a drowsy or calming effect.

Effects When Abused

CNS depressants can be addictive* and should be used only as prescribed. Otherwise, they can bring about major health problems, including addiction. Combining them with alcohol or other drugs like pain medications can lead to slowed breathing and heart rate, and even death.

(*Addiction is when a person compulsively seeks out the drug and cannot control their need for it, even in the face of negative consequences.)