With such a large portion of the population suffering from sleep and anxiety disorders, it’s no wonder there is such a wide variety of medications meant to treat these ailments. In today’s time, benzodiazepines and sedative-hypnotics have largely replaced barbiturates as the primary medications prescribed. Benzos and sedative-hypnotics were created to find a medication that offered similar medical properties with less of the adverse side effects. Barbiturates are extremely potent and carry a high risk of addiction.

The potency of barbiturates was another concern because of the risk of overdose. With sleeplessness and anxiety being such common ailments, there is a high demand for drugs to help those who suffer from these problems find relief.

The National Institute of Mental Health released a study that shows more than 20 percent of adults in the United States experience some form of anxiety and a staggering 60 million adults deal with a sleeping disorder.

Prescriptions to deal with overactive minds are nothing new, but the medications prescribed have changed over the years. Barbiturates are not prescribed nearly as often as they once were, but this does not mean they are highly sought out by drug users. Barbiturates started to lose their allure when more and more individuals became addicted to the drugs. When they are abused, they can lead to an overdose, and this is especially the case when they are used with other drugs and alcohol.

While the drugs have decreased in popularity and fallen out of doctors’ notepads, they can still be used recreationally to achieve intoxicating effects similar to alcohol. Barbiturate addiction can be a deadly disease if left untreated. Fortunately, it is a treatable disease. Addiction to barbiturates is treated with scientifically supported therapies and cutting-edge advancements in the addiction field.

What Are Barbiturates?

Before benzodiazepines saturated the market, barbiturates were the drug of choice to treat these common and debilitating ailments. Barbiturates are central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and they reduce the activity of nerves that cause muscle relaxation. They can reduce heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Each barbiturate drug affects gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) which is a neurotransmitter that nerves use to communicate.

These drugs were also used to treat seizures by inducing sedation. 

They are derivatives of barbituric acid, which was first synthesized in the late 1800s. By the 1950s, the troubling effects became more noticeable by those using the drugs.

There were more stories of dependence and accidental overdoses associated with use. The public was outraged and demanded medication that was not destructive and boasted medicinal properties that outweigh the risks of using it. In turn, benzodiazepines became a replacement medication in the 1970s.

Today, barbiturates are still used as anticonvulsants and a general anesthetic, but doctors rely on them less than ever before. Common barbiturates include:

  • Butisol (Butabarbital sodium)
  • Amobarbital (Amytal)
  • Secobarbital (Seconal)
  • Butalbital (Fiorinal, Fioricet)
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • Phenobarbital (Luminal)
  • Mephobarbital (Meberal)

How Barbiturates Work

As mentioned above, barbiturates are central nervous system (CNS) depressants that work much like other sleep aids and alcohol. They work in similarly to other depressants in the brain by affected GABA. This naturally occurring chemical is responsible for inhibiting excitability in the nervous system. It allows the body to relax from stress and excitement when it is time to rest. It does so by binding to and activating GABA receptors. Those who suffer from anxiety and sleep disorders have a deficiency in their brains that make GABA less effective.

Depressants increase the efficiency of GABA and bind to a different site on GABA receptors to increase the effect on the receptor. The result? It brings a sense of relaxation, a decrease in anxiety, and a hypnotic sensation. When used in higher doses, however, barbiturates can cause effects that are similar to being drunk. Such symptoms include euphoria, loss of coordination, drowsiness, loss of inhibition, and loss of motor skills. These effects are what can lead individuals to use this drug recreationally.

What Are the Signs of Barbiturate Addiction?

Drug addiction is often difficult to pinpoint in the early stages, but substances like barbiturates will always present warning signs throughout the stages of addiction. Even when used in what is considered as a therapeutic dose for too long, your body can become chemically dependent. Addiction is a lifelong disease that could create lasting implications, but there are signs to tell if you or someone you love is struggling with barbiturate addiction.

The first sign of barbiturate addiction is a growing tolerance to the drug(s). You may begin to notice a subtle loss of the drug’s effect over time with daily use. This will, in turn, require you to increase the dose or frequency in which the drug is consumed. The drug itself is not becoming weaker, but your nervous system is adjusting to its effects.

As tolerance continues to build with use, the brain will start to produce chemicals to counteract the drugs and balance brain chemistry, and a chemical dependence will follow. Dependence is a scenario where the brain relies on the drug for route functions. During use of the drug, the excitatory functions become suppressed, and sudden cessation of the drug could spell disaster. Since the brain now requires the drug to function, you will begin to feel uncomfortable and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. The brain will become overwhelmed by a wave of excitatory chemicals causing anxiety, paranoia, tremors, and even seizures.

Continued drug use will eventually lead to addiction. This is especially true when seeking the euphoric effects. Addiction is defined as the continued use of a drug despite the serious consequences. If you’ve become worried that you or a loved one has developed a barbiturate addiction, signs to look out for include:

  • Hangover-like symptoms
  • Isolation
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Drunkenness similar to alcohol
  • Hiding drugs around the house
  • Lying about drug use
  • Inability to stop despite multiple attempts

What Is Involved in Barbiturate Addiction Treatment?

Addiction treatment addresses the chemical dependence that you or a loved one is dealing with. It does this by delving deep into the causes of addiction. It will involve an in-depth and complex treatment plan upon entering the program, but it will be tailored to meet your specific and unique needs. You will go through an intake and assessment process to determine which treatment programs will work best for you.

Barbiturate withdrawal can be very dangerous, and treatment more often than not will begin in a medically managed detoxification center. Detox is a process of 24-hour supervision and access to medical professionals during the three to seven-day visit. This will allow you to rid all of the toxins in your system that led to this point and mitigate any risks attributed to withdrawal. The staff will provide medication to help reduce the worst symptoms you may face. After detox is completed, the clinicians will decide which level of care will best suit your needs. The next levels of care may include:


These programs include medically monitored service in a residential facility. This means you will live on-site for a period of up to 90 days and attend therapies in the presence of others. This is used for those who carry a higher risk of relapse and have a poor living environment outside of treatment.


This is the highest level of care for someone who needs to live independently. This is ideal for people who can’t neglect work or school responsibilities. Intensive outpatient treatment involves more than nine hours of service per week.


Similar to intensive outpatient, this involves fewer than nine hours per week of clinical services. This is for someone with a less serious addiction.

How Dangerous Is Barbiturate Addiction?

Barbiturates were removed from being prescribed due to their inherent dangers. Their effects that include intoxication can create panic and anxiety, which is what they were designed to treat. Barbiturates are highly addictive and easily lead to chemical dependence when they’re abused. When someone becomes dependent on the drugs, withdrawal symptoms can cause serious symptoms such as seizures and delirium tremens. These both can result in death.

The strength of barbiturates can cause life-threatening overdoses. It can cause respiratory depression, brain damage, coma, and death. 

This risk is increased when using them with alcohol or other nervous system depressants. The overall risk was found not to be worth the medical value.

Barbiturate Abuse Facts and Statistics

  • Women are more likely to receive barbiturate prescriptions than men because they are more likely to seek help for depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
  • 55% of past year treatment admissions for barbiturate misuse are women.
  • In 1955, over 70 percent of admissions to a center for substance abuse in Copenhagen, Denmark were connected with barbiturates.
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