Despite their many beneficial effects, benzodiazepines and barbiturates have the potential for abuse and should be used only as prescribed. The use of non-benzodiazepine sleep aids is less well studied, but certain indicators have raised concern about their abuse liability as well.
During the first few days of taking a prescribed CNS (Central Nervous System) depressant, a person usually feels sleepy and uncoordinated, but as the body becomes accustomed to the effects of the drug and tolerance develops, these side effects begin to disappear. If one uses these drugs long term, larger doses may be needed to achieve the therapeutic effects.
Sedative-hypnotic drugs — sometimes called “depressants” — and anxiolytic (antianxiety) drugs slow down the activity of the brain. Benzodiazepines (Ativan, Halcion, Librium, Valium, Xanax, Rohypnol) are the best known. An older class of drugs, called barbiturates (Amytal, Nembutal, Seconal, phenobarbital) fit into this broad category. Other drugs in this group include chloral hydrate, glutethimide, methaqualone (Quaalude, Sopor, “ludes”) and meprobamate (Equanil, Miltown and other brand names).
Alcohol has some properties similar to the above drugs, but alcohol is so common that health experts classify alcohol-related problems separately. Regular use of these drugs often leads to “drug tolerance.” That is, the body adjusts to them and it takes a higher and higher dose to achieve the desired effect. Dependence also can develop, meaning withdrawal symptoms will occur if the drug is suddenly stopped.
There is no absolute dose or number of pills per day that indicates a person is dependent on sedative, hypnotic or anxiolytic drugs. People with drug dependence eventually develop physical tolerance (the gradual need for greater amounts of the drug to feel the same effects). But addiction implies that the person is also craving the drug’s effect or relying on the drug for a reason other than the intended therapeutic uses of the drug.