Home » Sleep Medicine » Drug Therapies for Sleep » Barbiturates – Uses, Side Effects, and Health Risks

Barbiturates – Uses, Side Effects, and Health Risks

The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Read our full medical disclaimer.

What are barbiturates?

Barbiturates are drugs that act as central nervous system depressants. They are effective as anxiolytics, hypnotics, and anticonvulsants. They were widely used as a treatment for anxiety and insomnia. However, Benzodiazepines are now the preferred treatment for these sleep disorders because benzos have significantly lower risks of addiction and overdose. Another primary consideration is the lack of an antidote for barbiturate overdose.

Barbiturates first came out in the late 19th century. In the 1960s and the 1970s, barbiturates became a popular recreational drug. The use and abuse of barbiturates have declined, and this is because of the emergence of newer and safer drugs like benzodiazepines.

How do barbiturates work?

When taken as medications, barbiturates have calming effects on the body. The effects that they have on your body are similar to those of alcohol. They can make you calm and relax. They can also cause an inability to feel pain and loss of consciousness.

The effects of barbiturates depend on the dose that you take. While a small dose can make you feel relaxed and sociable, large doses can make you hostile. Large doses can also cause anxiety and hostility.

Barbiturates increase the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA. These are chemicals in the brain that help transmit signals.

What do they use barbiturates for?

Before the advent of benzodiazepines, barbiturates were routinely used and prescribed by doctors. They are used to treat certain conditions like:

  • Epilepsy
  • Increased pressure in the skull
  • Severe trauma to the skull
  • Convulsions

There also off-label treatments for barbiturates. When we say that medication is off-label, this means that a drug is intended for something else, but used for another medical condition. This is legal and done by most doctors.  Off label uses of barbiturates include:

  • Migraines
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Jaundice
  • Trauma

Are there side effects when using barbiturates?

Just like any drugs, barbiturates have side effects. Some of the most common side effects include:

  • Insomnia
  • Heavy perspiration
  • Increased sensitivity to sound
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Irritability
  • Emotional instability
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Impaired memory
  • Impaired attention
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired balance
  • Suicidal tendencies

Are there health risks involved in the use of barbiturates?

Yes, there are risks especially when barbiturates get abused. These risks are the primary reasons why barbiturates are now rarely used.


Barbiturates are sedatives. They can help induce sleep. Although they can work wonders for those who suffer from sleep disorders, using barbiturates in heavy doses can cause excessive drowsiness.

The feeling of sleepiness can last for several days. Because of this lingering side-effect, those who use barbiturates are not allowed to drive or use heavy machinery.

Dependence and tolerance

When used for a long period of time, a person can develop dependence to barbiturates. Simply put, your body will crave the use of barbiturates. It will come to a point when you can no longer fall asleep without the aid of these drugs.

You can also develop a tolerance for the drug. This means that you will need a higher dose for the drug to work. As you increase the dosage you are taking, your body adjusts until even the highest dosage can no longer help you.

Depression of Respiration

When used in high doses, barbiturates can cause depression of the respiratory center of the brain. This leads to a decreased drive for respiration. These drugs make your body think that you don’t need air to survive. When you overdose in barbiturates, you can experience a complete suppression of respiration which leads to respiratory failure.

Cardiovascular depression

Barbiturates in high doses can lead to decreased cardiac contractility. It can even lead to decreased cardiac output. This means that your heart pumps blood with a decreased power of contraction. As a result, blood is not getting pumped into your entire body. There is also the risk of blood flow decreasing. A decreased blood flow to the brain is very dangerous.

Enzyme Induction

Your liver produces several enzymes that metabolize various drugs. When you use barbiturates, the actions of these enzymes get enhanced. This is what we call enzyme induction.

When you experience enzyme induction, there is an increased metabolism of some medications taken together with barbiturates. This means that these drugs work shorter than intended. An example of this kind of drug is the antibiotic rifampicin.

Effects on the kidney

Using barbiturates can cause a decrease in the flow rate into the kidneys. When this happens, you will experience low blood pressure and decreased volume of urine. We all know that urine is a way for our body to get rid of toxins inside our body. When your urine output decreases, you’re storing toxins inside your body.

Barbiturates are rarely prescribed nowadays. This is because of the health risks involved in their use. However, these medications are still used for the treatment of some medical conditions. If your doctor decides to prescribe barbiturates to you, you need to understand what barbiturates are. It is also important to understand the health risks involved in their use.

Barbiturates may have gained an unpleasant reputation thanks to its notoriety as a recreational drug during the 1970’s. However, it still has its uses and equipped with the right information, you can use barbiturates to help you deal with your medical condition.

Additional Resources

Get Chapter 1 of our new book "How to Sleep Better" Free!
12 Days to the Sleep You Deserve
We respect your privacy.