Drug and Alcohol

CNS Depressants: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They’re Dangerous

CNS depressants are a wide family of drugs that slow down the nervous system. Effective when used properly, they can be deadly when abused.

What are CNS Depressants? The Facts About this Family of Drugs

Table of Contents

Written by

Brian MooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

Jeremy ArztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

November 20, 2023

The Edge Treatment Center

Who'd want to take a drug called a depressant, anyway? Isn't the point of drug use to feel better?

Depressants aren't that kind of depressing. CNS depressants are a class of drugs that act on the central nervous system, slowing down brain activity and producing a calming or sedative effect.

In other words, they depress activity in our nervous systems.

CNS depressants are commonly used to treat various medical conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. However, they can also be highly addictive and dangerous when misused.

What Are CNS Depressants?

CNS depressants are also known as central nervous system depressants. They are a class of medications and substances that have a sedative & soothing impact on the brain & body. They function by slowing the activity of the central nervous system. 

Our central nervous system regulates our thoughts, emotions, and bodily actions. These antidepressants often treat anxiety, sleeplessness, seizures, and muscular spasms. They’re often prescribed by doctors, and they come in various forms, including tablets, liquids, and injections.

What Do CNS Depressants Feel Like?

There are several types of CNS depressants, each with its function & set of effects. When people use CNS depressants, they can experience various side effects. These can include feeling more relaxed, less anxious, or sleepy. CNS depressants can also cause breathing and heart rates to slow down.

As a result, only use them as recommended and under the supervision of your doctor.

Do CNS Depressants Have Side Effects?

CNS depressants, like any medicine, can have side effects. Avoid taking CNS depressants with alcohol or other drugs since this can be risky and increase the chance of harmful effects. When someone suddenly discontinues using CNS depressants, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. 

These symptoms might range from minor to severe, including headaches and difficulties sleeping. Work closely with a doctor and follow their advice to avoid withdrawal symptoms and safely discontinue CNS depressants.

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List of CNS Depressants

There are several types of CNS depressants. Each with its own set of properties and medicinal applications. Let's look at some of the essential examples of CNS depressants.


Benzodiazepines, sometimes known as "benzos," are a class of prescription drugs. They are commonly used as sedatives, anti-anxiety medications, and muscle relaxants. Diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), and lorazepam (Ativan) are a few examples.


Barbiturates were originally widely used as sedatives and hypnotics. However, they are now less frequently given due to the risk of overdose and dependency. Phenobarbital and Secobarbital are two examples.

Non-Benzodiazepine Sleep Medications

These prescription medications, sometimes known as “z-drugs,” are mostly used to treat insomnia and help people fall asleep. They work by targeting specific receptors in the brain to induce sedation. Zolpidem and eszopiclone are two examples.


Anticonvulsants are mostly used to treat seizures and epileptic conditions. Some anticonvulsant medications, such as clonazepam, are used to treat panic disorders & anxiety disorders.


While not a medication, alcohol is a CNS depressant that has soothing effects on the central nervous system. It needs to be understood that alcohol can be addictive and has serious health risks when misused.

Muscle Relaxants

These medications are used to treat muscle spasms, stiffness, and pain. They function by depressing the central nervous system and promoting muscle relaxation. Carisoprodol and cyclobenzaprine are two examples.

Side Effects of CNS Depressants

CNS depressants can be useful in treating certain conditions. But they also carry the risk of side effects. The particular CNS depressant effects may differ based on the type of CNS depressant used and individual aspects. Following are some of the most common side effects of CNS depressants.

Short-Term Side Effects of CNS Depressants

There are many short-term effects of CNS depressants. They include:

Drowsiness and Sedation

CNS depressants can cause sleepiness and sedation immediately, resulting in decreased alertness and cognitive functioning.

Impaired Coordination

Motor skills and coordination may be momentarily affected, resulting in unstable movements and an increased risk of accidents.

Slowed Breathing

CNS depressants can potentially suppress the respiratory system, resulting in delayed or shallow breathing.

Confusion and Disorientation

Short-term use of CNS depressants can result in confusion, difficulties thinking clearly, & disorientation.

Dizziness and Lightheadedness

As a result of CNS depressive usage, some people may develop dizziness and lightheadedness.

Nausea and Digestive Issues. 

CNS depressants can occasionally produce gastrointestinal distress, such as nausea, vomiting, or stomach upset.

Long-Term Side Effects of CNS Depressants

CNS depressants can be very dangerous when used for long periods of time. Long-term side effects include:

Dependence and Addiction

Long-term use of CNS depressants can develop physical & psychological dependence. This leads to cravings and the need for greater dosages to get the same effect.

Withdrawal Symptoms

When a person discontinues or dramatically lowers their use of CNS depressants after a lengthy period of use, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. These include anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, tremors, and seizures.

Cognitive Impairment

Long-term CNS depressant use can result in cognitive impairment. This impacts memory, attention, and general cognitive function.

Emotional and Mental Health Effects

CNS depressants can worsen mood disorders, including sadness and anxiety. They may raise the risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors in some people.

Sleep Disturbances

CNS depressants can disrupt normal sleep patterns, resulting in difficulties falling or staying asleep.

Respiratory Issues

Continued use of CNS depressants can raise the risk of respiratory depression. This can be life-threatening if severe.

Withdrawal Symptoms of CNS Depressants

Withdrawal symptoms can develop when a person discontinues or dramatically lowers their use of CNS depressants after extended or high-dose use. The severity & duration of these symptoms can differ based on different factors. These include the type of CNS depressant taken, the duration of use, and individual circumstances.

The following are typical withdrawal symptoms related to CNS depressants.

Anxiety and Restlessness

During CNS depressant withdrawal, feelings of increased anxiety, irritability, and restlessness are common.


A common withdrawal symptom is difficulty sleeping or staying asleep. Sleep difficulties can worsen feelings of restlessness and anxiety.

Increased Heart Rate and Blood Pressure

Some people may suffer temporary increases in heart rate and blood pressure. At the same time, their bodies adjust to the lack of CNS depressants.

Tremors and Shakiness

Muscle tremors, shaking, or uncontrollable trembling may occur as part of the withdrawal process.

Sweating and Chills

Sweating and chills may occur when the body's temperature regulation changes after CNS depressant withdrawal.

Nausea and Digestive Upset

During withdrawal, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or stomach pain can occur.


Headaches are a typical sign of withdrawal from CNS depressants.

Muscle Pain and Stiffness

During withdrawal, muscles may become painful and stiff, causing discomfort and muscular pains.

Increased Sensitivity to Stimuli

Individuals experiencing withdrawal from CNS depressants may be more sensitive to light, sound, and other sensory stimulation.

Mood Changes

Mood swings, sadness, and irritability can be frequent during CNS depressant withdrawal.

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How Long Do CNS Depressants Stay in Your System?

The duration that CNS depressants stay in the system can vary depending on several factors. This includes the type of CNS depressant, dosage, frequency of use, metabolism, and individual characteristics.

Medical professionals use half-life to determine how long a particular drug stays in a person’s system. A drug’s half-life is the amount of time it takes for half of a dose of a drug to leave the body.

Here are some rough estimates of how long CNS depressants can be detected in the body.


Benzodiazepines are a frequently prescribed class of CNS depressants. Its detection timeframes can range from a few days to several weeks. Depending on the substance and its half-life. Short-acting benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, may be detected in urine for 3-7 days following the last use.

Long-acting benzodiazepines, such as Valium, can be detectable in urine for longer, possibly up to 4-6 weeks.


Barbiturates are another form of CNS depressant, although they are less commonly prescribed currently. Barbiturates often have a shorter detection window than benzodiazepines. For roughly 2-3 days following the last use, most barbiturates can be identified in urine.

Certain long-acting barbiturates can remain detectable for a longer period, up to 2-3 weeks.

Non-Benzodiazepine Sleep Medications

Insomnia is treated with non-benzodiazepine sleep medicines such as Zolpidem & Eszopiclone. These drugs are often shorter-acting and have a narrower detection window. They are frequently detectable in urine for 1-2 days after use.


Alcohol is a CNS depressant that the body quickly metabolizes. Alcohol may be detected using a variety of testing procedures, including breath, blood, and urine tests. The alcohol detection window might vary based on the quantity consumed and individual factors.

Alcohol can usually be detected in the breath and blood for hours after intake. Still, urine tests can detect it for several days.

What Drugs Do CNS Depressants Interact With?

CNS depressants can interact with a variety of substances. This includes other medications, alcohol, and certain medical conditions, potentially causing adverse effects.

The following are a few examples of major interactions:


Combining CNS depressants with alcohol can have additive effects, increasing sedation, respiratory depression, and affecting motor coordination. When taking CNS depressants, it is strongly suggested to avoid alcohol.

Other CNS Depressants

Combined use of various CNS depressants can increase the risk of excessive sedation, respiratory depression, and other side effects. 


Certain antidepressants can interact with CNS depressants. This increases the risk of side effects such as sedation, drowsiness, and impaired cognitive function. 


Some antihistamines, often taken for allergy treatment or as sleep aids, can have sedating effects. They can cause sleepiness and decrease mental abilities when used with CNS depressants. 

Medications Metabolized by the Liver

Certain CNS depressants may interfere with the liver's metabolism of other drugs. This potentially changes their efficacy or increases their side effects. 

Health Conditions

Individuals having specific medical conditions, such as respiratory conditions, liver disease, kidney problems, or a history of substance abuse, may be more likely to have side effects or medication interactions when using CNS depressants. 

Are CNS Depressants Addictive?

Yes, CNS depressants have the potential to be addictive. Long-term or high-dose use of CNS depressants can result in physical & psychological dependence. This means that the body & mind become dependent on the substance to operate correctly.

Even when CNS depressants are taken as recommended, dependence can develop. However, the risk increases with larger doses and more extended periods of use.

Certain CNS depressants, such as benzodiazepines & barbiturates, have a higher risk of addiction. These drugs can provide feelings of relaxation, pleasure, and drowsiness. These can be addictive and lead to overuse.

Individuals may begin to misuse or abuse CNS depressants by taking higher doses than recommended. Using them without a prescription or utilizing them for non-medical purposes.

CNS depressant addiction can majorly impact a person's physical & mental health, relationships, and overall health. Stopping or lowering the dosage of CNS depressants abruptly after dependence has developed can result in withdrawal symptoms that can be unpleasant or possibly fatal, depending on the level of the addiction.

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Do you need advice about CNS depressants? Reach out today.

CNS Depressants Can Be Deadly if Abused. The Edge Treatment Center Will Help

While CNS depressants can be effective when used as prescribed, they can easily become dangerous if abused. Some people may take larger doses or mix them with other drugs or alcohol to enhance their effects. This significantly increases the risk of overdose and even death.

In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2018 alone, there were over 10,000 deaths attributed to overdose on CNS depressants. This is a stark reminder of the potential danger and harm associated with these drugs.

However, there's a way to avoid being a statistic. The Edge Treatment Center offers effective, evidence-based care for CNS depressant addiction. Our team of specialists provides personalized treatment plans, including therapy, individualized treatment plans, and more to help individuals safely overcome their addiction and achieve long-term recovery.

We recognize the importance of maintaining connections. Our treatment center is a device-friendly environment, enabling clients to stay connected with their support networks. The Edge actively encourages family visits and counseling sessions to help in the healing process. With a team of licensed clinicians, personalized care is provided using evidence-based therapies. 

Client safety is a top priority, with 24/7 access to medical staff available. The Edge Treatment Center takes a comprehensive approach to addressing co-occurring mental health disorders. Our ultimate commitment is to support individuals on their journey to long-term recovery and help them achieve a fulfilling life free from addiction.

If you’d like to learn more about the way we can help you or a loved one leave CNS depressants behind for good, just reach out to The Edge Treatment Center today.

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