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Barbiturates vs Benzos: Comparing Tranquilizers

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Barbiturates vs Benzos: Comparing Tranquilizers

It’s probably been a good minute since you’ve heard about barbiturates. They have fallen out of usage in the last few decades due to their hazardous chemical effects on the human body. Benzodiazepines (more commonly referred to as benzos) have largely taken their place in modern psychiatry. Psychologists and psychiatrists utilized both of these depressants to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures—so what’s the difference between barbiturates vs benzos?

Barbiturates vs Benzos


Pharmacology of Barbiturates vs Benzos

Both of these depressants function as neuron inhibitors. Put simply: they slow down brain function to address issues like anxiety which result from overactive neurons.

How do Barbiturates work?

Phenobarbital Chemical Structure
Barbiturates bind to GABA receptors (neurotransmitters that regulate electrical brain activity), which is a chloride channel that has five cells at its gate. Barbiturates keep that channel open longer than usual, allowing more chloride ions into cells in the brain. The increased negative ion charge changes the voltage in brain cells.


How do Benzos work?

Benzodiazepine Chemical Structure
Benzos also bind to GABA receptors. They force chloride through the cell at a higher rate than normal. This influx of chloride causes hyperpolarization of the neuron, similar to barbiturates. Both medications suppress neuro-electronic activity, which is great for treating things like seizures and anxiety.


If that’s too hard to visualize, no worries. Think of it like this: your central nervous system is a gatekeeper for the molecules that regulate your brain’s electrical activity. It’s always monitoring the amount of chloride that it lets through. When there isn’t enough chloride, you can experience high electrical impulse things like anxiety and seizures. Barbiturates keeps the gates open longer than normal, and benzos increase the rate that chlorides pass through. The eventual result is similar with both drugs. As brain cells switch to this negative charge, they become resistant to nerve impulses. This is why barbiturates and benzos are considered depressants.

Barbiturates often end in -TAL.

  • amobarbital (Amytal)
  • butabarbital (Butisol)
  • pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • secobarbital (Seconal)
  • belladonna and phenobarbital (Donnatal)
  • butalbital/acetaminophen/caffeine (Esgic, Fioricet)
  • butalbital/aspirin/caffeine (Fiorinal Ascomp, Fortabs)

Benzos often end in -AM.

  • alprazolam (Xanax, Xanax XR)
  • clobazam (Onfi)
  • clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • clorazepate (Tranxene)
  • chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • diazepam (Valium, Diastat Acudial, Diastat)
  • estazolam (Prosom is a discontinued brand in the US)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)
  • oxazepam (Serax is a discontinued brand in the US)
  • temazepam (Restoril)
  • triazolam (Halcion)


Overdosing on Depressants

If you suspect someone has overdosed, please call 911 immediately. Getting help quickly may be the difference between life and death.

When it comes to overdosing, depressants have one of the highest potentials for fatality as they shut down vital body functions.  This is particularly true when cross-mixed with other drug classes. But each depressant works differently. So what does it look like to overdose on barbiturates vs benzos?

The chief biological component at work here is the central nervous system. Your CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord. It coordinates and influences the activity of, well.. basically everything in your body. So the central nervous system is pretty important.

Needless to say, the CNS is the main director of your vital body functions like breathing. Tranquilizer drugs pose a danger by depressing the CNS to the point that your body does not breath on its own. And when your body is deprived of oxygen, it’s all bad. Although it is 100% possible to die from barbiturate overdose OR benzos overdose alone, it’s when you start combining drugs that fatalities skyrocket.

So what drug combinations pose the highest risk of death?

Overdose from these drugs individually or mixed also lead to other toxic effects. This includes coma, delirium, hallucinations, muscle twitching, and more.

Barbiturates vs Benzos in Treatment

As a licensed and accredited substance abuse treatment facility, we have years of experience in detoxing individuals off dangerous drugs and alcohol. The reality of these withdrawals calls for the temporary, taper-oriented use of these tranquilizer drugs. This sedative effect counteracts the potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms that result from high tolerance of toxic substances.

Although each treatment center is different, New Start Recovery utilizes two main tapered tranquilizers.


This barbiturate acts as an anti-seizure and anti-anxiety medication. Alcohol and benzo withdrawal pose a high seizure risk, so phenobarbital helps ensure the safety of our clients as they detox. Due to its narcotic properties, all clients are fully tapered off of phenobarbital before discharge.

Questions? Talk to a New Start Counselor 24/7 for a free assessment 855-737-7363

Lorazepam (Ativan)

This benzodiazepine acts as a temporary anti-anxiety medication for the early phases of treatment. Although it helps during the tough transition of detox, due to its narcotic properties, we do not allow our IOP clients to take lorazepam. We do provide alternatives for clients who struggle with dual diagnosis anxiety.

Questions? Talk to a New Start Counselor 24/7 for a free assessment 855-737-7363

Although recreational use of barbiturates vs benzos often leads to undesirable outcomes, the transitional use of them during treatment restores these tranquilizer drugs to their intended status as pharmacological tools.

If you or a loved one is seeking help for addiction, call one of our addiction counselors today: 855-737-7363

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