In 2020, barbiturates aren’t making headlines the way they used to. At its peak, this class of prescription medications was responsible for the deaths of some of the world’s most celebrated musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Elvis Presley, plus on-screen celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. Since then, they’ve largely been replaced by benzodiazepines, but they’re by no means obsolete. In fact, these prescription meds are dispensed more often than one might suspect. Barbiturates can cause life-threatening effects and are responsible for over 3,000 overdose deaths each year. Learn more about this line of drugs that are still just as dangerous today.
This group of hypnotic-sedatives drugs can be used to treat seizures, neonatal withdrawal, insomnia, anxiety, migraines, and are frequently connected to suicides. These prescriptions can act as sedatives or anesthetics and carry a high potential for addiction. Barbiturate abuse is common among users, which is why benzodiazepines have become more commonplace in lieu of “barbs” as benzos are thought to be much safer.
History of Barbiturates
Barbiturates are classified as a sedative-hypnotic drug and central nervous depressant. At the height of popularity in modern medicine, these prescriptions commandeered a reputation among Hollywood’s elite. The potency of barbs was later discovered to be highly addictive and lethal. Physicians almost never prescribe barbs anymore and utilize benzos to treat the same ailments. Today, barbiturates are used for surgical procedures and are almost always administered by a medical professional in a clinical setting.
Effects of Barbiturate Abuse
The immediate effects of the drug make barbiturates popular. They create a sleep-like, relaxed feeling, which in turn reduces stress and sedates the brain. Users often describe a warm, full-body calming sensation that allows them to relax and be carefree. For this reason, this class of prescriptions is an ideal treatment for people who suffer from anxiety disorders and sleep issues. In other cases, barbs can assist with seizure disorders. They quickly act to diminish the brain’s inclination toward seizure activity.
However, barbiturate abuse is all too common among prescribed patients. The drug can be administered via IV or syringe or through pill form. They created an overwhelming addiction problem in the 1970s and 1980s similar to the opioid crisis we’re experiencing today.
Barbiturates act to depress nerve activity in the cardiac and skeletal muscles. They also impact the CNS in several different ways that create effects ranging from mild sedation to a coma-like state depending on the dosage. Higher doses can drastically decrease heart rate and blood pressure. The drawbacks of barbiturate abuse include:
- Extremely dangerous interaction with other drugs, particularly alcohol
- Dosage can severely impact the effects of the drug and can cause overdose
- Highly addictive
- Lack of effective treatment for overdoses’
If you or a loved one is struggling with barbiturate abuse or addiction, it’s important to seek help. These prescription drugs can be deadly and require treatment from certified, experienced addiction experts. Our online substance abuse programs have proven to drastically reduce usage and can serve as a resource that provides the tools for long-term sobriety. Contact us directly at 720-650-8055.
From Barbs to Benzos
Benzodiazepines are a large category of drugs prescribed for the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, seizures, drug withdrawal, and other purposes. In recent years, benzodiazepines – or benzos – are used recreationally, as well. After meticulous studies were carried out, the medical community asserted a need for mitigating the risks of barbiturate abuse. As a result, benzos came to replace barbs, which is why barbs are not often discussed in the same ways as Xanax and Valium. Although benzos have the potential for abuse, they are not quite as potent and there are methods for treating overdose.
Librium and Valium appeared on the market in the early 60s. Physicians believed that these drugs would bring an end to the barbiturate overdose problem of the time. Today, of course, we know that even benzos carry the potential for abuse and addiction. The main difference between benzos and barbs is that barbiturates are much more addictive and much more dangerous, especially when taken recreationally and in high doses.
Barbiturates vs Benzodiazepines: A Comparison
So how do these drugs compare to one another? Are they really all that different? In some ways, no. They are both depressants. They’re both used to treat conditions like insomnia, anxiety, and epilepsy. They’re both highly addictive and carry a high risk of abuse. They’re also both very helpful classes of drugs when used responsibly. Roughly just as many people are taking benzos today as there were people taking barbiturates 50 years ago. These drugs help a lot of people to manage their anxiety. However, they can both have fatal consequences when abused. The biggest difference between benzodiazepines and barbiturates is in their mechanism of action.
How do these drugs work?
Both of these drugs work by binding to the GABA receptors in our brain. For those that are unfamiliar, GABA is a chemical that our bodies produce to regulate our mood. It helps us to keep calm during situations that might otherwise produce anxiety. If you’re put into a fight-or-flight situation, for example, your body produces a bunch of GABA. The chemical binds to the appropriate receptors in your brain to help you stay calm and think more clearly about whether to stick around or run for the hills. When the body is unable to produce sufficient amounts of GABA, strong sensations of anxiety and even anxiety disorder may result. Even the most mundane activities can feel overwhelming.
Barbiturates were invented to address these types of disorders. By binding to the GABA receptors in the brain, barbs can better regulate the amount of GABA that enters the brain. Here’s a great video from Simply Nursing that explains how these two drugs affect the brain differently. Benzos bind to the same receptors but on a different part. They still work to regulate the amount of GABA that enters the brain. However, they don’t block the chemical entirely. Instead, they block it for a shorter period of time, allowing the brain to calibrate itself accordingly. Benzos are designed to relieve the user’s anxiety for a few hours. This is much different than drugs in the barbiturate class, which can sedate the user for several days.
Barbiturate Abuse Today
Doctors usually prescribe these meds only in cases where the patient needs a long-acting supply of GABA (after some surgeries, for example). The drug also comes in a liquid tincture form that is taken with an eyedropper.
Barbiturate abuse, although less common, is still associated with many overdose deaths each year. People who use the drug for recreational purposes may snort or smoke the drug. Others take it intravenously. Like heroin or meth, they inject the liquid directly into their bloodstream. While this is far less common than it was a few decades ago, it’s not yet been eradicated. Barbiturate abuse looks a lot like heroin addiction.
The Risks of Barbiturate Abuse
Much like opioids, these drugs are central nervous system depressants. This means that they slow your nervous system down very quickly and for longer periods. This is, in part, why they work so well for anxiety. They enabled people to relax for extended timeframes.
Taking too much a CNS depressant, though, increases the risk of shutting down the nervous system entirely. This is extremely dangerous. If the lungs stop pumping blood and stop circulating air, the user is likely to experience complete respiratory failure, which can result in sudden death. This is usually what happens in barbiturate overdoses. Marilyn Monroe’s death happened this way. Similarly, it’s how Judy Garland and Alan Wilson (the lead singer of Canned Heat) died, too. This is a common method of suicide, as well. However, plenty of people have overdosed on these drugs by accident.
Barbiturate abuse is a serious condition and steps for integrative treatment should be taken to help decrease the chances of long-term health issues and premature death.
Warning signs of barbiturate abuse include:
- Changes in concentration
- Changes to judgment
- Memory problems
Risks of barbiturate abuse include:
- Breathing troubles
- Chronic fatigue
- Sexual issues
- Sleep issues
- Fatal overdose
Other Potential Side Effects of Barbiturate Abuse
In addition to respiratory depression, there are a number of other negative side effects. Barbiturate abuse can lead to chemical dependence. As with most prescription drugs, barbiturate abuse can cause a build-up of tolerance to the drug. With increased use and dosage, barbiturate abuse can quickly spiral into dependency. This is particularly true if illicit methods for ingesting the drug are used like smoking it or injecting it.
When your GABA levels are mismanaged, it can heighten anxiety and cause further sleep issues. Abuse, essentially, can make the drug ineffective and even cause a relapse of disordered symptoms. Additionally, this line of drugs carries hallucinogenic effects when taken in large quantities. Although people battling with addiction may have a fear of recovery, it’s essential that they find resources that can help aid in overcoming barbiturate abuse. AspenRidge REACH online treatment provides accessibility and flexibility while still maintaining evidence-based practices proven to address substance abuse problems and co-occurring disorders.
Mixing Barbiturates and Alcohol
It appears that the majority of barb-related overdoses also involved alcohol. That was certainly the case with Jimi Hendrix. Alcohol is a well-known and widely accepted depressant. Its effects slow the respiratory system. When the two drugs are paired up, they’re far more likely to cause adverse effects. In the case of Jimi Hendrix, the cause of death was asphyxiation while sleeping. Essentially, his lungs stopped working. The drug-alcohol combo kicked in and slowed down the CNS, which triggered his lungs to slow down to the point of respiratory failure.
Mixing booze and barbs is something to avoid.
Don’t Drink with Barbs in Your System
Remember, barbiturates have a long half-life. They remain in the body for up to five days in some cases. Benzos don’t last nearly that long. As a reference, Klonopin is completely out of the system within a day. It’s important, therefore, to avoid alcohol for a few days after taking these prescribed medications. If there are any traces of the drug in your system and you add alcohol to the mix, you run the risk of creating a very fatal cocktail.
Seeking Help for Barbiturate Abuse
Thousands die each year from a prescription drug overdose. Barbiturate abuse is a much larger problem than most people think. It leads to severe health consequences and can impact day to day life. Additionally, it carries a high potential for abuse and as tolerance build, it can quickly spiral into addiction.
Regardless of the drug type, developing physical tolerance to the medication can cause lasting effects. Withdrawal happens when lowering the dosage or stopping the medication altogether. Withdrawal is the body’s process to remove toxic substances. Unfortunately, withdrawal symptoms from barbs can be extreme and include:
- Panic attacks
- Cognitive difficulties
Yes, dying from barbiturate abuse withdrawal is possible. It’s important to seek help, especially when detoxing from the drug. The detoxification process can happen at a medical facility. During detox, proper medications can be provided to help safely and effectively rid the body of toxins. Medical professionals can closely monitor and evaluate progress prior. After, it’s important to seek treatment programs that can help prevent relapse.
AspenRidge REACH: Online Barbiturate Abuse Recovery
Take control of recovery. AspenRidge REACH is a dual diagnosis online program offering various treatment options tailored to individual clients. Our licensed therapists and certified staff members are knowledgeable and supportive. The methodologies deployed through our programs often involve various approaches that can alleviate strong, negative emotions, plus address barbiturate abuse. Our online addiction treatment options include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Group Support
- Ongoing Individual Therapy
- Co-Occurring Treatment Options
- Life skills training
- Holistic Treatment
- 12-Step Programs
Online treatment programs make it possible to receive recovery care while still maintaining a flexible schedule. And yes, they are as effective as intensive outpatient programs through in-person meetings. REACH methodologies prove to support clients through recovery and long-term. We can address fear and healthy coping mechanisms to combat any doubt and uncertainty.
Our licensed therapists can give you the tools you need to find relief from barbiturate addiction. Contact us today at 833-90-REACH.