What’s the Difference between a Stimulant and a Depressant?
Most addictive drugs come in two general classes: stimulants and depressants. The most fundamental way in which these two types differ can be inferred by their names. Stimulants stimulate the central nervous system and depressants do the opposite, slowing it and all the parts of the body controlled by the central nervous system down.
Of course, there are many other differences between the two. Due to the prevalence of recreational drug use, it’s important to be familiar with the effects of each type of drug in order to be able to recognize the signs of abuse, addiction, and overdose. Both stimulants and depressants claim lives every year due to overdose and other health problems related to long-term abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were a total of 47,055 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2014.
In addition to overdose, addiction is a serious problem on both ends of the spectrum, for legal and illicit drugs. Without proper education on these substances, it can be easy to put oneself at risk for developing a substance use disorder and find that one’s life is controlled by a drug. An inability or refusal to stop abusing a drug often results in early death from health complications.
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Stimulants, often called “uppers,” are the kinds of drug that make people feel supercharged with energy and focus, even to the point of feeling invincible. They send the central nervous system into overdrive, increasing heart and breathing rates, suppressing appetite, and causing a spike in blood pressure. Certain stimulants can cause a rush of euphoria, especially if they’re taken via common abuse methods like snorting, smoking, or injection.
The most commonly used and abused stimulants include:
- Cocaine/crack cocaine
- Methamphetamine (meth)
- MDMA (ecstasy)
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Cocaine vs. Crack
Caffeine and nicotine are, of course, legal and mild stimulants that many people use to get themselves going throughout the day, but they come with their own adverse side effects, especially if the drink or cigarette includes harmful additives. Cocaine, meth, and ecstasy are mainly considered to be “street” drugs that have few legitimate medical uses. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are stimulant medications that are mostly used legally to treat medical conditions, but they have been increasingly abused by individuals without a prescription.
Depressants come in several different categories, including legal and socially approved intoxicants, highly illegal street drugs, and different types of prescription anxiety medications and painkillers. They work by inhibiting the central nervous system, and slowing the heart rate and respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. This results in a feeling of relaxation, peace, and often sleepiness. These drugs can also produce an intense euphoria, particularly if abusing opioids. This makes opioids particularly addictive. In 2014, around 2.5 million Americans had an addiction to one of these painkillers.
Common depressants with abuse potential include:
Heroin, morphine, Vicodin, codeine, fentanyl, and OxyContin are all opioid painkillers. Heroin is actually very similar to morphine and essentially turns into morphine in the brain, but it tends to be more potent and, due to the fact that it’s highly illegal, is often cut with other substances. Due to both their pain-relieving and pleasant relaxing effects, prescription opioids are some of the most commonly abused drugs of the modern age. They often end up restricted by governments after years of being overprescribed by doctors, resulting in them saturating black markets or simply being shared by friends and family.
Other prescription depressants include benzodiazepines (Valium and Xanax) and barbiturates (amobarbital and phenobarbital). These medications were prescribed for decades as supposed solutions to stress and anxiety disorders. Barbiturates came first, but it was soon found that these drugs were both highly addictive and had a high potential for overdose. Benzodiazepines were developed as a safer alternative, but they are still both addictive and dangerous.
Common Health Effects
Though stimulants may make individuals feel great temporarily, they typically include negative side effects and result in a “crash” when the drug leaves the system, causing symptoms like fatigue, inability to focus, and depression.
Because stimulants increase heart rate and blood pressure, taking them can be very risky for anyone with heart problems or who already has an increased risk of stroke. They can also cause very unpleasant psychological side effects, especially for those who have an underlying mental illness like anxiety, panic disorders, or issues with paranoia. This is a rather common occurrence, as one-third of all people with a mental illness also engage in substance abuse, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Teeth grinding, tremors, and muscle twitches are common as the brain and body become overly stimulated.
Stimulant overdose deaths are most often caused by sudden heart failure, heart attack, stroke, or hyperthermia – a condition in which the body becomes dangerously overheated. Other symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Pain or tightness of the chest
- Profuse sweating
- Racing pulse
- Irregular breathing
- Limb jerking or rigidity
- Feeling paralyzed
- Severe headache
- Panic attacks or extreme anxiety
- Intense paranoia
- Extreme agitation
In the long-term, continued stimulant abuse can result in a weakening of artery walls or inflammation of the heart muscle as high blood pressure wears them down. Stimulants also restrict blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract, leading to ulcers and tears.
Studies have suggested that long-term stimulant abuse may lead to significant permanent changes in the brain, including a reduction of the white matter that’s responsible for impulse control, stress management, and decision-making. Psychological symptoms related to stimulant abuse may also continue long after an individual quits, especially anxiety and depression. There’s even increasing evidence of a link between stimulants like cocaine and Parkinson’s disease.
Depressants are particularly dangerous when it comes to the potential for overdose, especially since these drugs are often mixed with one another to intensify the euphoric effects. Artificially slowing down the central nervous system always comes with risks as it controls the essential functions of the heart and lungs. An overdose of depressants can cause someone’s breathing to slow to the point that not enough oxygen can reach the brain and other vital organs. This can quickly lead to brain damage, coma, and death.