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What Are Downers? Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium), Alcohol, Barbiturates

The Downers: Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium), Alcohol, and Barbiturates

Downers, a colloquial term for depressants, are drugs that decrease mental or physical activity. Downers are functionally opposite to uppers or stimulants which are drugs that increase activity of the mind or body. Depressants are widely used as prescription medications and illegitimately as recreational drugs. Benzodiazepines and barbiturates are the most commonly prescribed depressants. Alcohol is also classified as a depressant.


Benzodiazepines are prescribed according to the underlying disorder. For example, benzodiazepines that have a short action are prescribed for insomnia while long-acting ones are used for treating anxiety disorders. Benzodiazepines are also prescribed for managing symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and treating other disorders including muscle spasms, seizures, and convulsions. This class of drugs is also used before medical and dental procedures.

Xanax and Valium are among the more popular brand names of benzodiazepines that are considered to be generally effective as well as safe in the short term. However, in some cases these may have an opposite effect and lead to aggression. There is also a risk of increased tolerance, physical dependence and severe withdrawal symptoms. Although benzodiazepines do not interfere with normal embryonic development, these are generally not prescribed during pregnancy due to risk of cleft palate and neurobehavioral effects in newborns.


Barbiturates have literally been phased out from routine medical practice since the time benzodiazepines appeared on the scene. Barbiturates carry a high risk of addiction and benzodiazepines are a safer option. The elderly are at a higher risk when using this class of drugs because with age it becomes more difficult for the body to get rid of barbiturates. Ultra-short acting barbiturates are used in hospital settings for preparing patients for surgery when there is obviously much less likelihood for illicit use. Long acting barbiturates, on the other hand, are used to treat insomnia, anxiety and different types of seizures and are known for their recreational use.

Long term use or overdose can lead to cognitive impairment, sluggishness, shallow breathing, and in severe cases, coma and/or death. Barbiturate overdose in conjunction with opiates or other depressants such as alcohol or benzodiazepines is even more dangerous.


Alcohol has the same effect on the body as barbiturates and benzodiazepines in that it affects the inhibitory neurotransmitter and works as a sedative and hypnotic. It also decreases the effect of other depressants.

Alcohol meant for ingestion is basically ethanol and its effect depends largely on the amount consumed and the time taken to drink a specific quantity. Short term effects of alcohol include dehydration, intoxication and slurred speech. Alcohol is specifically dangerous for diabetics as it increases insulin production, which in turn causes blood sugar levels to lower and may possibly lead to death. Long term effects include addiction. People less tolerant to alcohol may experience vomiting and unconsciousness. Very high levels of blood alcohol, up to six times the level of intoxication, are rarely seen (unless huge amounts are consumed) but are known to be fatal.

Downers have a sedative, hypnotic and anxiolytic (meaning anti-anxiety or anti-panic) effect. While temperance in alcohol consumption is advocated, benzodiazepines and barbiturates are prescription medications that should be taken only as prescribed.

Learn more about how you can drug test for these substances by visiting our urine drug test page or our alcohol test page.