In the first half of the 20th century, a drug called barbiturates were commonly used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Doctors prescribed them to anyone who was dealing with oppressive daily stress as a way to calm down and relax. Barbiturates and other sedatives were often marketed to mothers in the 1950s, which inspired the Rolling Stones song, “Mother’s Little Helper.” However, it was given to anyone whose doctors determined them to have a problem with sleep, stress, and anxiety. It was given to people like actress Judy Garland who were prescribed amphetamines to get through busy workdays and needed help calming down to get to sleep.
However, barbiturates could also cause deadly overdose, chemical dependence, and dangerous withdrawal symptoms. They were later replaced by safer options in the 1960s, but people like Judy Garland were already struggling with a substance use disorder. She, like Jimmi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe, would later suffer fatal overdoses that involved barbiturates.
One such barbiturate derivative is different than other prescription sedatives in that it provides fast-acting sedation that wears off quickly. It’s called methohexital, and it was once sold under the name Brevital. Brevital was used as an anesthetic and to induce deep sedation for surgery. Today it’s exclusively used in hospital settings with close supervision. Brevital works by interacting with a chemical messenger in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is responsible for regulating excitability in the brain by binding to its receptors and activating them. Barbiturates like Brevital increase the effectiveness of GABA by binding to receptors and increasing the inhibitory effects of the receptor.
When the drug is used for too long, taken in high doses, or abused recreationally, it can lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction. If you try to quit Brevital cold turkey, you may experience potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Learn more about Brevital withdrawal and how it can be treated safely.
As a central nervous system depressant, Brevital withdrawal can be severe, causing life-threatening symptoms in the worst cases. If you are used to a high dose of the drug or if you’ve been taking it for a long time, quitting cold turkey can cause you to experience symptoms like seizures and extreme confusion. Depressant withdrawal can also be worse if you’ve ever gone through it before.
A neurological phenomenon called kindling causes depressant withdrawal to leave long-lasting changes in the brain that make any subsequent withdrawals more dangerous. Withdrawal is caused when your brain becomes chemically dependent on a drug that is then taken away.
Brevital dependence may cause the brain to adapt by increasing the amount of excitatory chemicals to counteract the drug. When you stop using it, your nervous system might become overexcited, causing symptoms like tremors, anxiety, and even seizures.
Brevital withdrawal symptoms might include:
Because Brevital withdrawal can be dangerous, it’s important to seek treatment before you try to quit cold turkey. The safest way to get through detox is with medical help.
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If you’ve experienced symptoms of Brevital dependence, it’s possible that trying to quit on your own will result in severe symptoms. Medical detox is a high level of care in addiction treatment that involves 24-hour medically managed services. Detox is used to treat people that are likely to go through severe withdrawal symptoms, and Brevital withdrawal may certainly qualify. In medical detox for a depressant, you may be prescribed medication that eases your symptoms or tapers you off the drug. Detox can also help people that have other medical complications or conditions alongside withdrawal symptoms. Not everyone who goes through barbiturate withdrawal will need medical detox, but it’s important to make sure by speaking to a doctor before you attempt to quit.
You may need other levels of care in addiction treatment after you complete detox or if you don’t need it. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that detox is an important part of addiction treatment, but it’s not effective at treating addiction on its own. If you have medical needs that require round-the-clock care, you might go through an inpatient or residential program. If you’re able to live on your own, you may attend an outpatient or intensive outpatient program with between one and more than 20 hours of treatment service per week.
If you or someone you know might be dependent on a barbiturate or any other depressant, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Medical detox can help you avoid potentially life-threatening symptoms, and addiction treatment can address underlying issues. Substance use problems are often progressive. Without treatment, they can start to take over different aspects of your life, including your health, finances, and relationships. Getting treatment early can help you avoid some of the worst consequences of addiction. To take a positive step toward recovery, learn more about addiction treatment today.
Becker, H. C. (1998). Kindling in Alcohol Withdrawal – National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/25-34.pdf
Cunha, J. P. (2018, September 24). Barbiturates: Side Effects, Dosages, Treatment, Interactions, Warnings. Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/consumer_barbiturates/drugs-condition.htm
Mapes, J. (2019, September 23). Judy Garland: Troubles From the End of the Rainbow. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/news/judy-garland-troubles-from-the-end-of-the-rainbow-20860565
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, February). 8: Medical detoxification. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction/section-iii/7-medical-detoxification
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2004, September 16). gamma-Aminobutyric acid. Retrieved from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/gamma-Aminobutyric-acid