In the United States, alcohol is legal for people ages 21 and older to drink in moderation. Millions of people around the country drink with a meal or socially with friends. In addition, millions struggle with heavy drinking, binge drinking, or alcohol use disorder.
Even though drinking is legal for American adults, many people abuse this intoxicating substance, and some people do so by mixing alcohol with other drugs: prescription, over the counter, or illicit. This is a dangerous practice, as alcohol can compound the effects of other drugs, especially other central nervous system (CNS) depressants. This increases the risk of poisoning and overdose.
Alcohol’s Effects and Risks
Alcohol is a CNS depressant, so it can act on similar areas of the brain as other depressant substances. Consuming alcohol in moderation can lead to some desired side effects, including relaxation, lowered inhibitions, decreased anxiety, and greater sociability. However, drinking too much can cause negative consequences aside from just a hangover. Other general effects of consuming alcohol include:
- Increased blood pressure
- Rapid heartbeat
- Risk of ulcers
- Passing out or blackouts
- Liver damage
- Reduced blood-clotting ability
- Memory lapses
- Poor judgment
- Slow reflexes, which can lead to harmful accidents
- Distorted vision
- Increased risk of some cancers
On its own, drinking too much alcohol (either in one sitting or consuming a lot of alcohol over time) can lead to lasting physical harm to many different organ systems. When mixed with other drugs that act on similar areas of the brain, the risk of poisoning, overdose, and death greatly increases.
What Are Depressants?
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) defines depressants as a group of prescription substances that are designed to decrease anxiety and panic, increase relaxation, aid sleep, and reduce the risk of seizures. While these drugs can be safe when taken as prescribed by a physician, they can quickly lead to tolerance and dependence, especially when misused or abused. Depressants act on many of the same areas of the brain as alcohol, causing a synergistic effect or compounding both drugs’ effects, including the risk of poisoning and death.
- Barbiturates: Sometimes called tranquilizers, barbiturates were developed to treat insomnia and panic. Sometimes, these drugs are used as sedatives to ease peptic ulcers, high blood pressure, or the risk of convulsions due to seizure disorders. After demonstrating they were very addictive and sometimes even deadly, barbiturates are now rarely prescribed.Barbiturate intoxication can look like being drunk; the person slurs their speech, stumbles or loses their balance, becomes sleepy or very relaxed, and may not remember much about their intoxication. When prescribed, rapid-acting barbiturates can last 4-6 hours; long-acting barbiturates can have an effect on the body for 8-12 hours.
- Benzodiazepines: These drugs were designed to replace barbiturates, and although they are still widely prescribed as a short-term or as-needed treatment for insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, seizure disorders, and even muscle spasms, they have been found to also lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction.Benzodiazepines are rarely prescribed for more than two weeks of consistent, daily use because the brain begins to need the drug to produce gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an important neurotransmitter that helps neurons communicate effectively. Like barbiturates, benzodiazepine intoxication is characterized by slurring words, stumbling or losing balance, and becoming sleepy.
- Other sedative-hypnotics: These drugs are generally prescribed to treat insomnia, and they include Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta. They induce enough relaxation to help a person struggling with insomnia feel tired and get several hours of uninterrupted sleep.These drugs are usually less habit-forming, although they are not considered a long-term solution to insomnia because they can still lead to dependence, and the person taking them can still develop tolerance quickly. Side effects from these drugs include changes in behaviors; daytime drowsiness which makes driving or operating heavy machinery unsafe; and parasomnias like sleepwalking, sleep-eating, and even sleep-driving.
General Effects of Depressants
Mental side effects of depressants include:
- Lowered reaction time
- Impaired judgment
- Impaired cognition
- Confusion or disorientation
Physical side effects from abusing depressant drugs include:
- Physical weakness from relaxed muscles
- Blurry or double vision
- Nausea and vomiting
- Low blood pressure
- Depressed, slowed, or irregular breathing
Mixing CNS Depressants with Alcohol
Because benzodiazepines specifically act on GABA receptors the way that alcohol does, this drug is often recommended as a medication-assisted therapy (MAT) to manage alcohol withdrawal, which can cause seizures and anxiety among other uncomfortable and potentially lethal side effects. However, mixing alcohol and benzodiazepines means that the person will become more intoxicated more quickly; this can lead to physical harm from falling after losing balance, becoming the victim of a crime like assault or rape, and overdose.
Since barbiturates are not as widely prescribed as benzodiazepines, this combination occurs less often. The Global Information Network about Drugs (GINAD) reports that there are, on average, 3,000 deaths every year involving barbiturate overdoses; about 42 percent of those are believed to be suicides, and the rest involve accidental poisoning from mixing alcohol with barbiturates or other CNS depressants with these medications.
Mixing other sedative-hypnotics with alcohol increases the risk of parasomnias. While a person may experience alcohol poisoning or overdose on these sedative-hypnotics, more common are frightening stories like sleep-driving after mixing sedatives. One man was found driving the wrong way on a highway after taking two Ambien and likely mixing that substance with vodka. These z-drugs help the person’s brain relax to a state between being asleep and fully awake, which makes them dangerous. For some people, this state is like a blackout, and they may not remember anything until they discover the effects of their risky behaviors that occurred while they were in a stupor.
Interventions Can Save Lives
People who struggle with drug abuse, especially abuse of alcohol and other depressants, are at risk of dangerous behaviors and death, and of developing chronic health problems that will limit their ability to enjoy life. They are also more likely to have harmful behavioral changes that can damage their relationships and lead to financial struggles, job loss, and other kinds of harm. Staging an intervention is important for a variety of reasons, including saving relationships and reducing the risk of chronic health struggles. For people abusing multiple kinds of drugs, this can prevent their untimely death.
- Give friends and family an opportunity to express concern for their loved one’s behavior and support to change behaviors
- Allow space for therapists or medical professionals to explain addiction and appropriate courses of treatment
- Explain consequences if the person does not get help
Interventions are about providing information and support to the person struggling with alcohol and/or depressant abuse. This includes finding and explaining a potential plan for treatment. Friends and family members should research detox and rehabilitation facilities beforehand, including those that specialize in treating polydrug abuse, alcohol withdrawal, and prescription drug abuse.
Find Experienced Detox and Rehabilitation Specialists
Detoxing from multiple substances, especially those that are chemically similar, can be complex. In an instance like this, it may be risky to put the individual on a prescription drug like a benzodiazepine to manage withdrawal symptoms. Medical professionals involved in the detox process will assess the depressant withdrawal risks and manage side effects accordingly; this could involve tapering off barbiturates or benzodiazepines while ceasing alcohol consumption. Prescription depressants can be monitored much more closely than alcohol abuse.
It is important to work with detox specialists to manage polydrug abuse detox, ensuring the process is safe and there are medical professionals available to manage high-risk symptoms. Once the person has safely detoxed, they should enter a rehabilitation program. There are many outpatient and inpatient programs that specialize in alcohol, depressant, and polydrug abuse.