Barbiturates – the Whole Story
If you were to look up ‘downers’ on the internet, chances are that most of the information you would find would be about barbiturates. These drugs, known for their relaxing and sedative properties, have been around for a long time, and while their use in medical circles has tapered off, they are still a popular choice for recreational drug users.
Let us find out more about them.
Barbiturates are a type of drug that is used as a central nervous system depressant in the medical and psychological professions. They were first made in the 19th century, when a German named Adolf Van Baeyer created barbituric acid, the primary ingredient, using urea and an ester created from apples.
That barbituric acid was then altered and refined by chemists, who managed to derive thousands of compounds from it, some of which we know today as barbiturates.
How Do Barbiturates Work?
Barbiturates are a CNS (central nervous system) depressant, that work directly on a part of the brain called the GABA receptor. They also inhibit the AMPA receptors, which are the parts of the brain that stimulate excitement, and they inhibit the release of certain neurotransmitters.
This effect is similar to that of other CNS depressants, including alcohol, all of which create a feeling of relaxation, inhibit inhibition, and slow reflexes.
What Are the Medical Uses of Barbiturates?
Barbiturates have long been used in medicine, in anesthetizing patients, and as an anti convulsive. They are well known as a muscle relaxant, and they are also calming and soothing.
Barbiturates were also popular in the treatment of insomnia, although since it has become clear that they can be dangerous, and highly addictive, most psychiatrists have opted to prescribe the less dangerous benzodiazepines.
What Else Are Barbiturates Used For?
Aside from medical and recreational use, barbiturates are also used in the cocktail that is given to people sentenced to death by lethal injection, and to euthenase pets, which should give you some idea of how potent, and how potentially dangerous they can be when used incorrectly!
What Brand Names Are Barbiturates Prescribed As?
Barbiturates are still sometimes prescribed as treatment for a variety of conditions, and they are still used in hospitals, under the care of physicians. There are several types of barbiturates used in medicine, and these include:
It is very unlikely that recreational users of barbiturates buy them using their pharmacological names! They have several street names, however, including downers, bluebirds, goofballs, barbs and dolls.
How Addictive Are Barbiturates?
Barbiturates are highly addictive, both physically and mentally. In fact, during World War II, many soldiers were given ‘goofballs’ to help them cope with the stresses of battle, and many of them returned from war addicted.
Not only are barbiturates addictive, however, and not only do people who use these types of drug recreationally quickly build up a tolerance, requiring more to get high, but withdrawal and detoxing from barbiturates can in itself lead to dangerous medical problems, including convulsions, and possibly death.
Remember that barbiturates work on, and alter, the brain chemistry, and that makes for a highly addictive substance!
So Why Do People Use Barbiturates?
With so much bad press about barbiturates, it is easy to wonder why people would choose to use them. The answer lies in the effect they have.
Because barbiturates are a CNS depressant, they have a similar but much more potent effect as alcohol, another CNS depressant. Users feel relaxed and euphoric, they are not anxious, and in fact, their heart rate and breathing slows down when using barbiturates, which means they are physically as well as mentally relaxed.
Are Barbiturates Illegal?
Yes. Because barbiturates are very addictive, and because they do have potentially lethal effects when used improperly, their use is heavily regulated. Depending on the product, barbiturates are categorized as schedule two to four drugs, and they can only be legally obtained by prescription from a physician or psychiatrist.
Illegal possession of barbiturates also carries a stiff penalty, and depending on what preparation of barbiturates users are found with, and the quantity, there is a sentence of anything from five years to life in prison for illegal possession.
Symptoms of physical addiction to barbiturates will be anxiety, restlessness, or insomnia. Psychological symptoms of addiction would include a feeling of dependence, and of being ‘unable to cope’ without the drug.
Withdrawal and Overdose
With extended use, and because barbiturates work directly on the brain, many people become addicted to barbiturates, whether they use them medically or recreationally.
Once someone is dependent on the drug, they will tend to need more of it, as their body builds up a tolerance to it, and they will need to take more to have the same effect. This is because the GABA receptor in the brain requires more of the drug in order to be stimulated, and produce the same relaxed, sedated state.
The more barbiturates a person takes, the more they will need, over time, in order to be able to get high, but because of this tolerance increase, they also risk overdose, which can be fatal. This is particularly true, when barbiturates are combined with another drug, or with alcohol.
Depending on how high the tolerance that the user has built up, however, detoxification or withdrawal can both lead to convulsions, and or death.
Long Term Effects
While barbiturates are highly addictive, and can easily cause an accidental overdose, even in long-term users, many people do take them for a long time, mainly for their sedative effects, but sometimes for recreational purposes.
Over time, users may also become aggressive, seem intoxicated all the time, and have impaired memory or judgement, all because their brain chemistry ‘needs’ the drug.
Those users who do take barbiturates for extended periods of time often develop depression, or experience intense fatigue or mood swings. Long term, heavy users also have an increased risk of bronchitis or pneumonia, because barbiturates act on the respiratory system indirectly.
Who Is the Typical Barbiturate User?
The truth is, there is no ‘typical user.’ People who use barbiturates are as likely to be people who had been prescribed the drug, and become addicted, as they are those who tried it recreationally.