What are Sedative-Hypnotics?

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  • Written By: Misty Wiser
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2019
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Sedative-hypnotics are a class of drugs prescribed to induce tranquility and to promote sleep. These medications have a calming effect on the person taking them, and are prescribed to treat anxiety disorders and insomnia. The drugs are a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Long-term use of these drugs can cause physiological and psychological dependence. Ingesting large doses of sedative-hypnotics can slow the respiratory system and the heart, leading to death.

Central nervous system depressants are designed to slow the activity of the brain. Sedative-hypnotics act upon a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay messages to different parts of the brain. Increasing the activity of the GABA neurotransmitter causes a relaxing effect that eases anxiety or panic disorders.

Most sedative-hypnotics are benzodiazepines or barbiturates. The use of barbiturates, or downers, has declined since benzodiazepines were developed for the pharmacological market in the early 1950s. Short-acting barbiturates can be used for anesthesia, and longer acting ones are used for anti-convulsants. Benzodiazepines have less risk of severe side effects and are more likely to be prescribed to offset anxiety. Seconal® and Nembutal® are barbiturates used to treat anxiety and some sleep disorders.

The most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines are Xanax®, Valium®, and Librium®. They are classified according to how long the medication can be detected in the body. Short-acting drugs are prescribed to treat acute panic disorders and anxiety attacks. Long-acting drugs are used to treat those with chronic anxiety.


Regular use of sedative-hypnotics over a long period of time can lead to a tolerance of the drug prescribed. The dosage would need to be increased to maintain the same level of effectiveness. Quitting the medications can result in withdrawal symptoms of restlessness, agitation, insomnia, and great anxiety. Discontinuing the drugs suddenly can even result in seizures and possibly death. All persons thinking about quitting these drugs should consult with their physician.

Barbiturates and benzodiazepines are drugs that have a high likelihood of abuse. The calm, peaceful feelings produced by these drugs can be addictive to some. Taking these drugs with other CNS depressants, like alcohol, can cause the heart and the respiratory systems to slow down to fatal levels. Slightly more than the prescribed dose can cause slurred speech, slow reflexes, an unstable gait, and a lapse in judgment.

Side effects of sedative-hypnotics in small doses are usually limited to dry mouth, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, or a loss of appetite. Larger doses have more severe side effects such as drowsiness, tremors, lowered mental acuity, and impaired physical coordination. These undesirable effects will lessen as the dosage is lowered, and most people do not discontinue the use of the medications based on the incidence of side effects.


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