Drugs, both legal and illegal, can be categorized in a variety of ways. One of the most basic classifications is whether a substance is a stimulant or a depressant. Although they have different effects on the body, both are capable of causing dependence and addiction.
How Stimulants Affect the Body
As their name implies, stimulants are drugs that stimulate the body increasing energy, attention and alertness. They generally speed up the body’s processes increasing the heart and respiratory rate and raising body temperature and blood pressure. Sleep and appetite are suppressed. Stimulants enhance the effects of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine.
In a research report on prescription drugs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that stimulants have been used in the past to treat a variety of conditions including asthma, obesity and neurological disorders. As the dangers of the drugs became more apparent, however, their usage declined. Currently prescription stimulants are used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy and occasionally depression. Adderall, Ritalin and Concerta are stimulants. Stimulant street drugs include cocaine and methamphetamine.
How Depressants Affect the Body
Depressants act in an opposite manner to stimulants. Instead of speeding up most body processes, they slow them down. Depressants are sometimes referred to as sedatives or tranquilizers. They lower blood pressure and slow down brain activity, heart rate and breathing. Depressants generally affect the neurotransmitter GABA.
Commonly used depressant prescription drugs include those prescribed to treat insomnia and anxiety. These include benzodiazepine drugs like Valium and Xanax, non-benzodiazepine sleeping pills like Ambien or Lunesta and barbiturates like phenobarbital. Marijuana is a depressant as is alcohol.
Side Effects, Overdose and Withdrawal from Stimulants and Depressants
Because their actions differ, the primary side effects, overdose risk and withdrawal effects of stimulants and depressants also differ. The website rxlist notes that possible side effects of stimulants include stomach upset, headache, insomnia and sometimes psychosis, sudden death, stroke and heart attack. The more serious side effects are more likely to be associated with abuse of the drugs than with therapeutic use.
Depressant side effects include dizziness, confusion, lightheadedness and fatigue. Depressant use can also result in loss of consciousness, coma or death generally caused by cessation of breathing. Those who abuse depressants often experience impaired judgment, reduced inhibitions and an inability to control emotions.
Both stimulants and depressants are frequently abused, and people can easily develop dependence and addiction. Although the specific neurotransmitters that are involved vary between drugs and types of drugs, the process of developing addiction is similar among different drug classes. Drugs affect the body in predictable ways and the body responds.
Generally a drug’s primary mechanism of action is related to increasing the amount or effectiveness of a given neurotransmitter. The body then senses that neurotransmitter levels are out of balance and attempts to regain balance by reducing the amount produced or by making the cells that respond to the chemical less sensitive. This results in drug tolerance, in which the effects once produced by a given dosage of a drug are now only produced by a larger amount.
As people raise the dosage of the drug they are consuming in order to overcome drug tolerance, the body continues to adapt. Eventually the body will adapt to the point that levels are only in balance when the drug is present in the body. When it isn’t, the body’s push-back against the drug is unopposed, and withdrawal symptoms occur. At that point people are physically dependent on the substance. Addiction can be said to have occurred when people lose control of their consumption of the drug and continue to use it despite negative consequences.
Because withdrawal symptoms are a result of the body pushing back against a drug’s primary effects, they are opposite in nature. Withdrawal from depressants may involve insomnia, anxiety and seizures.
Stimulant withdrawal symptoms may include fatigue and depression. A 2008 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that eight percent of youth age 12 to 17 who did not abuse stimulants during the past year experienced a major depressive episode but that among youth who abused stimulants the rate was 23 percent.
Combining Alcohol and Energy Drinks
Although it is dangerous, it is not uncommon for people to combine multiple drugs in an attempt to enhance positive effects or counteract unwanted ones. A popular stimulant/depressant combination is alcohol with energy drinks. The combination is known by many names, including Red Bombs and Vodka Bulls. An article distributed by the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association notes the following dangers of combining the products:
- Consuming energy drinks with alcohol reduces drinkers’ ability to accurately judge their intoxication levels. Drinkers of the combination product are four times more likely to report an intention to drive after drinking than those who drink alcohol alone.
- Individuals who consume the combination drink for a longer period of time, consume more total drinks and have higher levels of intoxication. They are three times more likely to have a blood alcohol content higher than .08%.
- People who consume alcohol with energy drinks are twice as likely as those who drink alcohol alone to be taken advantage of sexually or to take sexual advantage of someone else.
- Drinkers of alcohol and energy drinks are more likely to be hurt or injured and to require medical treatment.
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