Barbiturates vs. Benzodiazepines

 Both these highly addictive classes of drugs are medically prescribed to treat insomnia, anxiety, and in some cases seizures. Here are some similarities and differences between the two often confused drugs.


Brand name examples of Benzodiazepines:

Valium, Ativan, Xanax, and Ambien


Properties of drug:

Commonly referred to as benzos, this type of prescription drug is psychoactive and can have sedative, hypnotic (sleep-inducing), anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), anticonvulsant, and muscle relaxing properties.  Benzos increase the effect of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which controls the activity of neurons that cause stress and anxiety.    


Used to treat:

Due to the ability to calm the mind and body, benzos are often used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, agitation, muscle spasms, alcohol withdrawal and on occasion, premedication for medical or dental procedures. 


Benzodiazepine Side effects:



Sense of wellbeing



Impaired vision

Decreased motor skills/unsteadiness


The side effects of benzos are increased when paired with other drugs such as barbiturates, alcohol, narcotics or tranquilizers. 


Benzodiazepine overdose symptoms:

Severe drowsiness



In extreme cases, and especially when mixed with alcohol or other drugs, overdose can lead to coma, respiratory suppression, and even death. 


Benzodiazepine Abuse:

Frequently those who abuse benzos are those who originally had a prescription from a doctor and their continued dependence on the drug led to increased dosage and dependence.  Women are more likely than men to have a prescription to benzos, and dependence is also a danger in the elderly, which is often untreated.  Illegal use is also an issue, more likely among users of other drugs as well, with benzos used in tandem or to counteract an illicit drug. 


Benzodiazepine Withdrawal and Treatment:

Benzos are often used for short-term treatment of panic, anxiety, insomnia or muscle spasms.  They have a high risk for dependency when used in long-term situations, defined as anything over 3 months, although risk of dependence can develop within days of beginning use.  Withdrawal symptoms are often similar to the very disorder that the drug was prescribed to treat in the first place, leading to continued dependence.   It is recommended that discontinuation of benzos is done under medical supervision with a gradual tapering off to counteract withdrawal symptoms such as seizures, tremors, muscle cramping, vomiting, sweating, depression, anxiety, or insomnia.

Brand name examples of Barbiturates:

Amytal, Nembutal, and Seconal


Properties of drug:

Barbiturates are a class of prescription drugs derived from barbituric acid that depress the central nervous system by regulating and increasing the neurotransmitter GABA, which impacts the body’s reaction to stress and anxiety.    


Used to treat:

Barbiturates are a drug used to treat seizures, insomnia and anxiety.  They are often referred to as “Downers”, “Barbs”, or described by the color of the pill.  In the 20th century they were frequently used to treat seizures and anxiety-related disorder but their medical use has been increasingly replaced by use of Benzodiazepines due to their narrower margin of safety and highly addictive properties.  Most commonly now they are used for anesthesia and sedatives.    


Barbiturates side effects:


Unusual excitement

Relaxed contentment


Impaired coordination

Lowered inhibitions




Barbiturate overdose symptoms:

Respiratory depression

Staggering/inability to walk

Shallow breathing

Inability to talk/slurring

In extreme cases, and especially when mixed with alcohol or other drugs, overdose can lead to coma, respiratory suppression, and even death. 


Barbiturate abuse:

Barbiturates are not widely prescribed due to the increase in use of benzos for similar cases of anxiety and insomnia.  They are used more often in one-time, monitored situations such as prior to surgery. Drug abuse is often related to illicit drug use, as a way to counteract the effect of another narcotic, thus enhancing the danger of its effects on the central nervous system. 


Barbiturate withdrawal and treatment:

Barbiturates are meant for very short-term use and are highly addictive. Addiction can be life threatening. Physical dependence on barbiturates is recommended to receive medical detox treatment so that the person in question can be monitored to ensure their safety. Symptoms of withdrawal can include: anxiety, muscle pain, elevated heart and respiration rate, confusion, hallucinations, or seizures. 


If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, whether physical or psychological on benzos or barbs, call the 24-hour help-line at the Pat Moore Foundation to receive answers about treatment and help. Call now at: (888) 342-7748.


About the Author: Dominica Applegate is an author, writer, personal development and relationship expert.  She has a deep passion for discovering and sharing authentic spiritual truth. She has been discovering herself under all sorts of odd layers and loves to share her stories and lessons learned with anyone that will listen.  She loves reading, contemplating, nature, family time, and traveling. Connect with Dominica at her website and Facebook


Image: Flickr

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