Barbiturates are a group of drugs from the sedative-hypnotic class of medications that are generally used to induce sleep for individuals with sleep-related and anxiety disorders. Popular in medicine during the 1960’s and 1970’s, barbiturates were largely replaced by benzodiazepines – another class of anxiolytic medication – in the 1970’s. Barbiturates quickly became a drug of abuse during the height of their popularity as they allowed individuals to decrease their inhibitions, reduced anxiety, and corrected unpleasant side effects of other drugs of abuse.
Named as the drug involved in the deaths of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, physicians quickly took note of the dangers of barbiturates. It was quickly determined that barbiturates were both addictive and dangerous, as the dose required to relieve anxiety or produce sedation was very similar to a dose that caused coma and death. Physicians began to prescribe benzos rather than barbiturates to reduce the risks for fatality, although phenobarbital, an anti-seizure medication belonging to the barbiturate class is still prescribed. Known on the street as “yellow jackets,” “downers,” “goofballs,” and “reds,” barbiturates are still abused by many individuals who were not around to witness these accidental deaths in the 1960’s and 70’s.
While generally taken by mouth in the form of a pill, barbiturates can be injected into the veins or muscles of the body, which produces desired effects more quickly. Available in many different formulations, barbiturates differ primarily in the length their effects last– some cause effects for up to two days, while others last only several minutes. Barbiturates are fat-soluble drugs that can easily cross the blood-brain barrier to cause effects quickly. In addition, as barbiturates dissolve in fats, these drugs can accumulate in the body and reenter the bloodstream at a later time, which can be very dangerous.
It’s been suggested that the resurgence in popularity of barbiturates is due largely to the increased amounts of stimulants that are abused. Most notoriously, cocaine and methamphetamines are known to cause intense excitement and anxiety, which can be extremely unpleasant. Individuals may use barbiturates to counteract these unpleasant symptoms.
Many individuals who become addicted to barbiturates have a co-occurring mental illness. The most common co-occurring disorders include:
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Substance abuse
- Conduct disorder
While most do not consider barbiturate abuse a common problem, it’s been shown that about 9% of individuals in the United States will abuse a barbiturate during their lifespan.
The precise cause for addiction remains unknown. It’s been suggested that individuals who develop an addiction to barbiturates or other commonly abused drugs may have a number of factors working together to create addiction potential. Causes for barbiturate addiction may include:
Genetic: It’s been well-documented that individuals who struggle with addiction often have a first degree relative who also struggles with addiction. While not a precise prognostic indicator, this does increase the chances for addiction to develop.
Brain Chemistry: It’s been suggested that individuals who abuse barbiturates may have a different structure and functionality of the brain, specifically at the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA binding sites. Individuals who have inborn defects in this area of the brain may self-medicate with barbiturates to feel more normal.
Environmental: Individuals who begin to use and abuse drugs at an early age are more prone to develop an addiction later in life. Additionally, individuals who grow up in a household where substance abuse is prevalent are more likely to develop an addiction later in life.
Psychological: Many individuals who attempt suicide do so by using barbiturates. In addition, individuals who are addicted to stimulants such as meth are more likely to abuse barbiturates as an effort to “come down” from the effects of the high.
Barbiturates are much like alcohol and benzodiazepines in that they relax the brain, which means that the symptoms of barbiturate abuse will cause the user to look much like they are intoxicated.
The symptoms of barbiturate abuse and addiction will vary tremendously based upon the individual’s genetic makeup, the length of time an individual was addicted, as well as the dosage the person takes. Common symptoms of barbiturate abuse include:
- Mood swings
- Decreased anxiety
- Lying and stealing to obtain money to buy barbiturates
- “Nodding out” during conversations
- Impaired coordination
- Slurred speech
- Lowered personal inhibitions
- Impaired judgment
- Difficulties thinking
- Reduction of REM sleep
- Respiratory depression
- Respiratory arrest
Effects of Barbiturate Addiction
The long-term effects of barbiturate addiction will differ from one individual to the next. Most common long-term effects of barbiturate abuse include:
- Strained interpersonal relationships
- Changes in alertness
- Decreased functioning
- Memory loss
- Respiratory depression
Effects of Withdrawal
If taken for even a single month, barbiturates can cause addiction and tolerance in the brain, which can lead to very serious symptoms of withdrawal. Withdrawal from barbiturates can be deadly. If you are addicted to barbiturates and are trying to stop taking them, it is imperative that you seek the care of a trained rehab center so a medical professional can help you safely and effectively withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sleep disturbances
- Dangerously high fevers