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Barbiturate Addiction

Anxiety and sleep disorders are some of the most common health issues that American’s deal with each year. An estimated 19.1 percent of adults in the United States experience some form of anxiety disorder in the past year, according to the National Institute of Health. 

Sleep disorders are also extremely common in the U.S. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as much as a third of adults in the U.S. don’t get the recommended amount of sleep they need each night. Around 60 million Americans suffer from some type of sleep disorder every year. 

Sleep and anxiety disorders can take a significant toll on a person’s physical and mental health over time. Plus, stress and a lack of sleep are associated with a wide variety of serious long-term health problems. To treat these common disorders, doctors and researchers have turned to central nervous system depressants since the late 1800s.

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Barbiturates were among the first medications used to treat insomnia and anxiety, and they become common throughout the first half of the 20th century. However, these potent depressants can lead to dependence, addiction, and deadly overdose symptoms if they are overused. In fact, barbiturates were involved in several high profile overdose deaths through the 20th century, including Jimmi Hendrix, Judy Garland, and Marilyn Monroe.

Because of their addiction liability and their potential for deadly overdose, they became less popular by the 1960s and 70s. Plus, benzodiazepines were introduced to the market at this time, and they were perceived to be safer. Though they can cause some of the same side effects, they are generally less likely to cause an accidental overdose, unless they are mixed with other drugs.  

Though they are less common, barbiturates are still used today to treat muscle spasms and seizures. Thay may also be used recreationally to cause an intoxicating high similar to alcohol. If you or someone you know has been taking a barbiturate, learn more about barbiturate addiction and how it can be treated.

What Are Barbiturates?

Barbiturates are a class of psychoactive substances that were once widely used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and seizures. They are in the broader class of drugs called central nervous system depressants which work to suppress excitability. Barbiturates work in a way that’s similar to other depressants. They primarily affect a chemical messenger in your brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is responsible for regulating excitability. In people with insomnia or anxiety disorder, GABA may be inefficient, or it may not be enough to counteract problems with overexcitability in the nervous system.

This results in racing thoughts, alertness, paranoia, an inability to get to sleep, waking up in the middle of the night, and even seizures. Barbiturates can bind to GABA receptors and make the chemical more efficient. The drug can make GABA so efficient it causes sedation, hypnosis, a release of anxiety, lowered inhibitions, and even euphoria. 

Because they can cause an alcohol-like intoxication, barbiturates have been abused as recreational drugs since they first entered the market. When abused, they are more likely to lead to negative symptoms like heavy sedation, drowsiness, dependence, and overdose.

What Are the Signs of Barbiturate Addiction?

Barbiturate addiction is a chronic and progressive disease that can get worse over time. If you are worried you might be developing a substance use disorder involving barbiturates, it’s important for you to learn to recognize the signs as soon as possible. Addressing a substance use disorder early can help you avoid some of the most severe consequences of the disease.

You may be able to recognize a substance use disorder when the nature of your drug use starts to change. You may start using barbiturates to treat symptoms, or even for recreation, but dependency may change your motivation. You may start to use just to feel normal or to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. You may start to use the drug in higher doses as your tolerance grows. You may also use by yourself apart from social settings, especially in the morning or in secret.

If you suspect that someone you know is struggling with a barbiturate addiction, there are a few signs that point to a potential substance use problem:

  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Poor judgment
  • Sedation
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Hiding drugs around the house
  • Lying about drug use
  • Loss of motor control
  • Isolation
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Problems at work or school

What Is Involved in Barbiturate Addiction Treatment?

Because barbiturates can cause potentially dangerous symptoms during withdrawal, it’s usually recommended that you start with medical detox. If you’ve developed a chemical dependence to a barbiturate, medical detox can help make sure you get through withdrawal safely and as comfortably as possible.

Detox may involve medication to help wean you off the drug slowly to help avoid symptoms like seizures and delirium tremens. You may also be treated with other medications to help control symptoms. Detox can also help treat other medical conditions or complications you have alongside withdrawal.

Barbiturates stopped being used as the go-to anxiety and insomnia drugs due to their relative dangers. When they are used for too long or abused, they may lead to chemical dependency or addiction. Chemical dependency can occur even with normal, regular use that lasts longer than recommended. Abuse is also likely to lead to dependence and addiction. High doses can also lead to potentially deadly overdoses.

 Withdrawal symptoms can also be dangerous, causing potentially deadly seizures and delirium tremens. 

Barbiturate Abuse Statistics

  • 11 percent of men and 23 percent of women who abuse sedatives like barbiturates commit suicide.
  • Barbiturate overdoses are fatal in 10 percent of cases.
  • 19 million prescriptions for barbiturates are dispensed each year.
Many people


Allgulander, C., Ljungberg, L., & Fisher, L. D. (1987, May). Long-term prognosis in addiction on sedative and hypnotic drugs analyzed with the Cox regression model. from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, February 22). Sleep and Sleep Disorders. from (2014, December 23). 21 Fascinating Barbiturates Statistics. from

National Institute of Mental Health. (2017, November). Any Anxiety Disorder. from

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019, July 31). Barbiturate intoxication and overdose: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. from

Valentine, V. (2008, May 20). Can't Sleep? Neither Can 60 Million Other Americans. from

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