Understanding The Difference Between Stimulants And Depressants
Stimulant drugs speed up your body and cognitive functions, whereas depressants slow them down. This is due to the way these drugs alter the functions of your central nervous system (CNS).
While the former causes user’s blood, heart, breathing, and temperature rates to rise, the latter causes them to fall. Both classes of drugs are highly abused in a manner which leads to dependence, tolerance, withdrawal, addiction, and overdose. Using these drugs together places a massive burden on your body’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems. This polydrug abuse can lead to severe cardiac complications, coma, overdose, and even death.
What Are Stimulants?
Stimulant drugs (or “uppers”) cause certain systems within your body and brain to work faster. Due to this, as explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), users experience a(n):
- Need for sleep
- Physical activity
- Blood pressure
- Heart rate
- Sense of well-being
They also change the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in your brain, which is why a person experiences a sense of reward and pleasure from abuse. According to NIDA:
“When taken in doses and via routes other than those prescribed, prescription stimulants can increase brain dopamine in a rapid and highly amplified manner (similar to other drugs of abuse such as methamphetamine), thereby disrupting normal communication between brain cells and producing euphoria and, as a result, increasing the risk of addiction.
Using these drugs for prolonged periods of time can create a sense of paranoia and hostility in users, as well as delusions, insomnia, and radical mood swings.
What Types Of Stimulants Do People Abuse?
There are both illicit stimulants and those which are prescribed for medical reasons. The latter is often diverted and used illicitly as well, for their speed-like effect. Recreational users may chew, inject, smoke, sniff, snort, or swallow these drugs, in an attempt to produce a “rush” or euphoric state.
Illicit stimulants include:
- Crack cocaine
- Illicitly manufactured methamphetamine (crank, crystal meth, ice, meth, speed)
- MDMA (ecstasy, “Molly”) Though this has hallucinogenic properties, it also creates a stimulant effect similar to amphetamines.
Commonly abused prescription stimulants which have an amphetamine-effect include:
- Amphetamine (Adderall, Benzedrine)
- Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
- Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)
- Methamphetamine (Desoxyn)
- Methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin)
Stimulants are highly addictive, and for that reason doctors strive to refrain from using them, except when medically necessary. The primary uses for stimulant medications today are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, binge eating disorder, and at times depression.
What Happens When You Overdose On A Stimulant?
As your CNS goes into overdrive from an excess of any of these drugs (or more than one) within a short period of time, your body’s life support systems work harder and faster. This places a supreme burden on your heart and respiratory functions. When this happens, the following signs of a stimulant overdose may occur:
- Chest pain
- Intense stomach pain
- Irregular or stopped heartbeat
- Rapidly rising body temperature
- Trouble breathing
Overdose can accelerate rapidly and happen on an acute basis, or occur over time, as explained by MedLine Plus. In the latter instance, the term is used to describe the cumulative, adverse health effects caused by habitual use.
Severe and life-threatening risks of overdose include:
- Heart attack
- Kidney damage and/or failure
What Are Depressants?
Central nervous system depressants (or “downers”), according to NIDA, include those medications which cause sedative and tranquilizing effects, both physically and mentally. This mechanism of action results from the way these drugs alter your brain’s ability to transmit activity, specifically that it’s slowed down. It’s these properties which lend this class of drugs their basic applications within the medical field, as anti-anxiety and sleep medications.
According to NIDA, there are three classes of CNS depressant medications, as follows:
Barbiturates are most known for inducing a sleepy and relaxed state. They are prescribed for seizures or for use during surgery. Once used heavily for sleep and anxiety, many physicians stray away from these uses due to the potential for overdose.
When used frequently, and in large doses, barbiturates form dependence and addiction quickly. Within situations of abuse, barbiturate pills or capsules may be swallowed in excessive amounts, while others choose to inject the drug.
Referred to as “Barbs,” “Red Birds,” “Tooies,” or “Yellow Jackets” by recreational users, examples of commonly abused barbiturates include:
- Pentobarbital (Nembutal)
- Phenobarbital (Luminal)
Benzos create an intense calm and relaxed state, hence why they’re primarily prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, and panic disorders. Highly addictive, these drugs form intense physical dependencies which can lead to deadly withdrawals, if not supported by a medical detox.
Slang includes “Candy,” “Downers,” and “Tranks.” According to NIDA, frequently abused benzos include:
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Chlorodiazepoxide (Limbitrol)
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Lorazepam (Ativan)
- Triazolam (Halicon)
Non-Benzodiazepine Sleep Medications (“Z-Drugs”)
These drugs create a sleep-inducing effects similar to benzos. They are purported to have a lower potential for physical dependence when compared to benzos, as well as less side effects. But, despite this, they can still be abused in a manner which leads to dependence, addiction, withdrawal, and even overdose.
Within situations of abuse, users call them “Forget-Me Pills” and “Mexican Valium.”
Frequently abused “Z-Drugs” include:
- Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
- Zaleplon (Sonata)
- Zolpidem (Ambien)
Are There Additional Depressant Drugs?
But these three classes of medications are not the only drugs which cause CNS depression. Both alcohol and opioids have massively strong depressant effects.
Far too many people overlook alcohol’s potential as a drug. Even though at the onset alcohol can create a pleasurable and stimulatory effect, it’s actually a depressant, another fact which is often disregarded.
When you drink faster than your body can keep up with, and the alcohol isn’t metabolized quickly enough, you can become extremely intoxicated. But at a certain point, as your body’s detoxification systems reach their maximum processing capacity, your CNS and basic life-support systems begin to shut down. This is referred to as alcohol poisoning, or an overdose from alcohol.
The opioid drug class consists of drugs which are naturally derived from opium (referred to as opiates) and those which seek to mimic the opiate effect. Opioid is a term used to include all drug types. Heroin, morphine (Roxanol), and opium are commonly abused versions of the former. The majority of narcotic painkillers fall in the latter category.
Opioids create respiratory depression, sedation, and a pain-relieving effect. They also create a sense of euphoria, which is the primary reason they are abused.
Commonly abused painkillers include:
- Codeine “Captain Cody” and “Purple Drank”
- Fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic) “Apache” and “China Girl”
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab) “Vike” and “Watson-387”
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid) “D” and “Dillies”
- Meperidine (Demerol) “Demmies”
- Methadone (Dolophine, Methadose) “Amidone” and “Fizzies”
- Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet) “Oxy” and “Hillbilly Heroin”
- Oxymorphone (Opana) “Biscuits” and “Blue Heaven”
The Overdose Potential Of Depressants
The depressant action causes critical life support systems within a person’s body to operate more sluggishly. Specifically, a person’s blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory functions, and temperature fall.
Within prescribed use, these effects (when monitored by a doctor) are typically safe. However, when a person goes outside of these bounds, and takes the dosage (dose and frequency of use) into their own hands, these drugs can be very dangerous and addictive.
Should a CNS depressant be used to excess and/or with another depressant, as within drug misuse (self-medication) and recreational use, these effects progress to extremes. When this occurs these critical life-support systems will actually begin to shut down, a serious medical emergency known as overdose.
Overdose symptoms will somewhat vary per drug, but the basic signs of overdose from CNS depression include:
- Altered vision
- Blue lips or fingertips
- Clammy, cold skin
- Decreased heart rate
- Dropping blood pressure
- Impaired reflexes and coordination
- Memory troubles
- Muscle weakness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Slowed or stopped breathing
- Slurred speech
In its most severe form, overdose can result in coma, and/or death.
Any of these drugs can, alone, lead to overdose. But overdose can happen quicker and more intensely, should you mix two or more. The FDA recently released a black box warning (their strongest warning) on the perils of mixing opioids and benzodiazepines, due to the high risk of fatal overdose.
Why Do People Use Stimulants And Depressants Together?
People abuse stimulants and depressants simultaneously for some of the following reasons:
- Intensify it
- Make it happen quicker
- Make it last longer
Other users may take a drug from the stimulant class to temper the high or come down with a drug from the depressant class, or vice versa.
Many take a drug from each class together so that they can enjoy the effects of one longer. A good example is when people drink alcohol and begin to feel its depressant qualities. They might want to keep partying and stay full of energy, so they take cocaine to reduce the relaxed state, fatigue, and intoxication which accompanies alcohol.
The Dangers Of Mixing A Stimulant With A Depressant
Taking a stimulant and depressant at the same time can create a false sense of stability and safety. One can mask the other, in a way which is dangerously misleading to the user. For instance, just because cocaine reduces the sense of intoxication while you’re drinking, does not mean that you’re immune from alcohol’s effects.
Even though you may feel like you can drink more without becoming drunk, your body and organs are still experiencing the weight of the alcohol. And vice versa, should you binge on cocaine. This polydrug abuse increases the risk of overdose from either drug, as well as addiction to each. This phenomenon holds true with whatever combination of stimulant and depressant you choose.
When you take a stimulant and depressant at the same time, or close within the same period, your brain and CNS is simultaneously receiving conflicting signals. This CNS conflict places your brain, body and its life-support systems in a dangerous tug-of-war. When this happens, your heart is extremely taxed as it struggles to keep up with both commands, which are essentially telling it to speed up and slow down at the same time. The same goes for your breathing, blood pressure, and temperature rates.
By taking both, stimulants and depressants a person faces an increased susceptibility to:
- Cognitive impairment
- Cardiac arrest
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
We’ve spoke a lot about cocaine and alcohol, because it’s a popular combination in social and party settings. But this combination holds a unique risk. When alcohol and cocaine are combined, they produce a potentially lethal and cardiotoxic byproduct called cocaethylene. This substance increases the risk of what could be fatal cardiac complications and stroke.
What About Energy Drinks And Alcohol? Are Those Safe?
A popular and hazardous combination has hit America: the combination of alcohol and energy drinks. Contrary to what you might think, or feel, the stimulant properties of energy drinks far exceed a little “pick me up.”
The large amounts of caffeine and other energy-inducing supplements push your body, and especially your cardiac system, into overdrive, much like we’ve discussed with stimulants and depressants in general. But while this happens, your body is still experiencing the depressant effects of the alcohol.
This stress can cause heart palpitations, with some researchers fearing an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. Further, as the CDC reports “Drinkers who mix alcohol with energy drinks are more likely than drinkers who do not mix alcohol with energy drinks to report unwanted or unprotected sex, driving drunk or riding with a driver who was intoxicated, or sustaining alcohol-related injuries.”
Don’t Get Caught In The Middle
Don’t let your drug abuse or addiction pull your life apart. A good, individualized inpatient drug rehab program can treat an addiction to CNS depressants, stimulants, or both. Contact Addiction Campuses today for more information.Article Sources
MedLine Plus - https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007480.htm
National Institute on Drug Abuse - https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs-charts
National Institute on Drug Abuse - https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/methamphetamine