What are Barbiturates? Uses, Side Effects, and Risks (2022)

Barbiturates are central nervous system (CNS) depressants commonly used as sedatives and anxiolytic agents to treat anxiety, insomnia, and other conditions. They also have the potential for abuse. Although there is some medical use of barbiturates in general anesthesia and certain seizure disorders, they are highly addictive when used recreationally.

There are a variety of barbiturates with slightly different properties, but all of them act on the same receptor sites in the brain and body. Because of their addictive potential, barbiturates are generally only prescribed as a last resort for conditions like insomnia or anxiety that cannot be treated effectively with other medications or therapies. However, there are some benefits to their use in carefully controlled circumstances.

How do Barbiturates Work?

Barbiturates are depressants that affect the central nervous system (CNS). They slow down the activity of the brain and spinal cord, which is why they are used as sedatives and general anesthetics. Barbiturates also relax muscles and treat convulsions caused by epilepsy or other types of seizures.

When taken recreationally, barbiturates act on the same receptor sites as GABA and stimulate dopamine production by the nucleus accumbens. GABA is one of the neurotransmitters (chemicals that nerves use to communicate with each other) that helps regulate the excitability of neurons in the brain and spinal cord.

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that keeps us calm and balanced by slowing down our brain activity. Barbiturates work by binding to the GABA receptors in the brain and increasing the amount of GABA in the synaptic cleft between neurons. Because GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, it slows down activity in the brain. Because barbiturates stimulate GABA receptors, they have sedative and hypnotic (sleep-inducing) effects. They also slow down breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Side Effects of Barbiturates

The short-term effects of barbiturates are decreased blood pressure, blurred vision, and slowed breathing. These effects can be dangerous, especially if large doses are taken, or someone has pre-existing health conditions. 

Long-Term Effects of Barbiturates

Over time, barbiturates cause many changes in the body. These are some of the long-term effects of barbiturates: 

1. Slurred speech, instability, and impaired coordination

People who take large amounts of barbiturates have difficulty walking, talking, and thinking clearly. These problems worsen as the amount and duration of drug use increase. They may also fall often because of poor balance and coordination. 

2. Liver damage

Most barbiturates are processed in the liver so long-term use can cause liver damage. This can lead to liver failure or liver cancer. 

3. Bone thinning and fractures

Taking high doses of barbiturates for a long time can cause the bones to break more easily, especially the spine bones. This happens because barbiturates decrease the amount of calcium in the bones. This can lead to osteoporosis, which causes bones to become thinner and more likely to break. 

4. Changes in eye color

Taking large amounts of barbiturates can change the color of someone's eyes from blue to brown.

Tolerance and Dependence of Barbiturates

Repeated use of barbiturates can lead to tolerance, which is when higher doses of a drug are needed to achieve the same effect. Barbiturate tolerance can develop quickly. Tolerance and dependence can lead to withdrawal symptoms if a person suddenly stops using a drug, but these symptoms can be prevented or managed with medical treatment.

Barbiturate dependence is when a person's body has become so used to the drug that it can't function properly without it. Withdrawal symptoms can occur when the drug is stopped suddenly. These symptoms are the body's attempt to adjust to the sudden absence of the drug and can be treated with support.

Withdrawal from Barbiturates

When someone stops taking barbiturates after repeated use, the body must adjust to the drug's absence. This process is called withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms are the body's attempt to adjust to the absence of the drug and can be treated with support. The symptoms of barbiturate withdrawal include: 

  • Anxiety 
  • Sleep problems 
  • Restlessness and irritability 
  • Headaches 
  • Sweating 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Stomach cramps 
  • Anxiety 
  • Mood swings
  • Disorientation 
  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased sex drive 
  • Intense cravings and urges 
  • Poor decision-making 
  • Inability to focus 
  • Paranoia 
  • Hallucinations

Abuse of Barbiturates

When someone uses barbiturates other than how they were prescribed, they are abusing them. Barbiturates can be abused in many different ways: 

  • Taking higher doses of barbiturates than prescribed 
  • Mixing barbiturates with other drugs  
  • Using barbiturates for a long time 
  • Storing or keeping unused barbiturates for later use 
  • Swallowing barbiturates whole (“pills popping”) 
  • Inhaling or snorting barbiturates 
  • Intravenous (IV) injection of barbiturates 
  • Using barbiturates to get high 
  • Engaging in other dangerous practices while on the drug 
  • Sharing or selling the drug

Conclusion: Uses of Barbiturates

Barbiturates are central nervous system (CNS) depressants commonly used as sedatives and anxiolytic agents to treat anxiety, insomnia, and other conditions. They also have the potential for abuse. Although there is some medical use of barbiturates in general anesthesia and certain seizure disorders, they are highly addictive when used recreationally.

There are a variety of barbiturates with slightly different properties, but all of them act on the same receptor sites in the brain and body. Because of their addictive potential, barbiturates are generally only prescribed as a last resort for conditions like insomnia or anxiety that cannot be treated effectively with other medications or therapies. However, there are some benefits to their use in carefully controlled circumstances.

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