What are CNS Depressants and What Do They Do

December 19, 2022

What are Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants 

Colloquially called “downers”, CNS depressants are a group of substances that acts on the central nervous system of our bodies. 

Our CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord which controls most bodily functions—this includes our breath and heart beat, the two most important things that are needed to keep us alive. The CNS does this by sending signals between the brain and other nerves via the spinal cord through a myriad of neurotransmitters—organic chemicals that act as messengers between cells and organs. 

CNS depressants essentially slow down communication between your brain and body, producing a relaxing sensation. This is in contrast to stimulant drugs such as ecstasy which excite the brain to produce a feeling of increased energy and pleasure. 

What are common CNS depressants

There are three broad categories of CNS depressants: sedatives, hypnotics, tranquilisers—there are other ways of classifying CNS depressants but these three categories are simple enough for us to wrap our minds around. 

Sedatives and hypnotics are commonly prescribed by doctors to help reduce anxiety, promote relaxation or improve sleep in patients. Similarly, tranquillisers are prescribed to relieve muscle spasms and treat anxiety. Some common CNS depressants include alprazolam (commonly known as Xanax, used to treat generalised and social anxiety disorders), zolpidem (used to treat insomnia), and phenobarbital (used to treat seizures). 

How do CNS depressants work 

CNS depressants work by slowing down brain activity, and it does this by acting on a neurotransmitter in the brain known as GABA, short for Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid. This is an important neurotransmitter in the brain whose primary function is to lessen a nerve cell’s ability to receive, create or send chemical messages to other nerve cells. 

The lesser a nerve cell is able to communicate with another nerve cell, the slower the activity of the organ that is connected to it. Effectively, CNS depressants produce a relaxing effect which is why it's used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. 

What are the side effects of CNS depressants

A person prescribed with CNS depressants might experience drowsiness at the beginning before the body adapts to the drug. Because of how it works on the neurotransmitters in the body, a person on CNS depressants might also feel rather uncoordinated, have slurred speech, low blood pressure, and poor concentration. Also, a user may experience CNS depression (a condition caused by the slowing down of bodily functions) and might have suicidal thoughts or behaviors

Due to its relaxing properties, people have misused and abused CNS depressants for recreational use. With any substance abuse, there is the danger of overdose and overdosing on CNS depressants could lead to breathing problems and even death. The simultaneous use of alcohol with CNS depressants (or multiple CNS depressants simultaneously) may also produce additive effects that can cause death. 

Key takeaway

It is important to know what CNS depressants are and what they do in order to protect yourself and your loved ones from potential abuse or overdose on CNS depressants. If you are a person recovering from a substance use disorder, avoiding medicines that contain CNS depressants is a good way to help prevent relapse. However, if you feel like you need a prescription of CNS depressant, talk to your doctor about safer alternatives or how to use CNS depressants safely.

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