Sedatives are a type of prescription medication that slows down your brain activity. They’re typically used to make you feel more relaxed.

Doctors commonly prescribe sedatives to treat conditions like anxiety and sleep disorders. They also use them as general anesthetics.

Sedatives are controlled substances. This means their production and sales are regulated. In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) regulates controlled substances. Selling or using them outside these regulations is a federal crime.

Part of the reason sedatives are so heavily regulated is that they can be highly addictive. They can cause people to become dependent on them beyond their control.

It’s important to be careful when using these medications to avoid dependency and addiction. Don’t take them unless your doctor has prescribed them to you. Take them only as prescribed.

Let’s go into more detail about how they work, what precautions to take if you use them, and some less potentially harmful alternatives you may want to try instead.

Sedatives work by modifying certain nerve communications in your central nervous system (CNS) to your brain. In this case, they relax your body by slowing down brain activity.

Specifically, sedatives make the neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) work overtime. GABA is responsible for slowing down your brain. By upping its level of activity in the CNS, sedatives allow GABA to produce a much stronger effect on your brain activity.

Here’s a a quick breakdown of the common types of sedatives. They’re all controlled substances.

Benzodiazepines

Examples of drugs

  • alprazolam (Xanax)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)
  • diazepam (Valium)

What they treat

  • anxiety
  • panic disorders
  • sleep disorders

Barbiturates

Examples of drugs

  • pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal)
  • phenobarbital (Luminal)

What they treat

  • used for anesthesia

Hypnotics (non-benzodiazepines)

Examples of drugs

  • zolpidem (Ambien)

What they treat

  • sleep disorders

Opioids/narcotics

Examples of drugs

  • hydrocodone/acetaminophen (Vicodin)
  • oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • oxycodone/acetaminophen (Percocet)

What they treat

  • pain

Sedatives can have both short- and long-term side effects.

Some of the immediate side effects you might notice include:

  • sleepiness
  • dizziness
  • blurred vision
  • not being able to see depth or distance as well as usual (impaired perception)
  • slower reaction time to things around you (impaired reflexes)
  • slower breathing
  • not feeling as much pain as usual (sometimes not even sharp or intense pain)
  • having trouble focusing or thinking (impaired cognition)
  • speaking more slowly or slurring your words

Long-term sedative use can lead to the following side effects:

Dependency develops when your body becomes physically dependent on the sedative and can’t function normally without it.

Signs of dependency

You may be experiencing dependency if you find yourself taking them regularly and feel you can’t stop taking them. This may be especially evident if you’re going beyond your prescribed dose or a safe amount.

Dependence also becomes evident when you need a higher dose to achieve the same effect. This means your body has become used to the drug and needs more to achieve the desired effect.

Withdrawal symptoms

Dependency tends to become most obvious if you experience withdrawal symptoms. This happens when your body responds to the absence of the sedatives with uncomfortable or painful physical and mental symptoms.

Common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • increased anxiety
  • irritability
  • inability to sleep

In some cases, you can become sick or experience seizures if you’re body is used to high amounts of the sedative and go “cold turkey” without easing yourself off the drug.

Dependence develops depending on your body’s tolerance to the drug. It can happen over a few months or as quickly as a few weeks or less.

Older adults may be more susceptible to certain sedatives, such as benzodiazepines, than younger people.

Recognizing dependence and withdrawal symptoms

Dependence can be hard to recognize. The clearest symptom is that you can’t stop thinking about taking the drug.

This may be clearer when you compulsively think about the medication when having any symptom related to the condition you’re using it to treat and think that using it is the only way you’ll be able to cope with it.

In these cases, your behavior and mood can change instantly (often negatively) when you realize you can’t have it right away.

Some of these symptoms, especially mood changes, can happen immediately.

Other symptoms point to withdrawal. These symptoms may appear several days or weeks after stopping use. Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • losing consciousness

Opioid caution

Opioids are especially prone to becoming addictive and producing harmful symptoms that can lead to overdose. These symptoms include:

  • slowed or absent breathing
  • slowed heart rate
  • extreme fatigue
  • small pupils

Call 911 or your local emergency services if you or a loved one experience any of these symptoms while using opioids. Opioid overdose has a high risk of death.

Always talk to your doctor before taking any opioid to avoid possible harmful or deadly symptoms of opioid addiction and overdose.

Even if you’re taking small doses of sedatives as prescribed by your doctor, you can still take extra care to make sure you stay safe:

  • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol also works like a sedative, so drinking and taking a sedative at the same time can compound the effects and lead to dangerous, life-threatening symptoms, such as loss of consciousness or stopping breathing.
  • Don’t mix sedatives together or with other medications that have similar effects. Mixing sedatives together or taking them with other medications that cause drowsiness, such as antihistamines, can lead to harmful side effects, even overdose.
  • Don’t take sedatives while pregnant without consulting a doctor. Sedatives in high doses can harm a fetus unless taken in a controlled medical environment.
  • Don’t smoke marijuana. Using marijuana may actually reduce the effects of sedatives, particularly ones used for anesthesia. A 2019 study found that marijuana users needed a higher dose of sedatives to get the same effects as a regular dose for someone who doesn’t use marijuana.

If you’re concerned about developing a dependency on sedative medications, talk to your doctor about alternatives.

Antidepressants, like SSRIs, can help treat anxiety or panic disorders. Stress-reduction techniques can also help, such as:

Practicing good sleep hygiene is another tool to help manage sleep disorders. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time (even on your days off) and don’t use electronics close to bedtime. Here are 15 other tips to sleep well at night.

If lifestyle changes don’t help you sleep, talk to your doctor about taking supplements, such as melatonin or valerian root.

Talk to your doctor if you feel like you can’t stop yourself from using sedatives.

Addiction is a brain disorder. Don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you or a loved one with an addiction or that you’re failing yourself or others.

Reach out to one of the following resources for help and support:

  • Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357) for free, confidential treatment referrals and information about addiction.
  • Go to the SAMHSA website to find an addiction treatment center near you.
  • Go to the National Institutes of Health’s official website for tips and resources about drugs and addiction.

Your doctor may also be able to recommend an addiction counselor, therapist, or a treatment center that can address both the medical and psychiatric effects of addiction.

If you have concerns about any sedatives that your doctor prescribes, ask your doctor or pharmacist these questions:

  • Is it addictive?
  • How much is too much of a dose?
  • Are there any harmful side effects?

Having an open, honest conversation with an expert can help you feel more comfortable using them.

Sedatives are powerful. They lower brain activity and relax your mind.

They can be effective treatments for conditions that make you feel overly wired, fearful, antsy, or tired, such as anxiety or sleep disorders. But they can also become addictive, especially if they’re misused.

Talk to your doctor before you start taking sedatives and be sure to follow their directions.

Help is available in many forms if you’re concerned about an addiction to sedatives. Don’t hesitate to reach out.