Is Heroin a Depressant?

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Heroin is a substance that is highly addictive. Heroin is classified as a Schedule I substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration. (1) This distinction means that heroin is not allowed to be used for recreational, illicit, or medical purposes within the United States. Heroin is processed from morphine, which is found in various poppy plants. (2) Heroin is also a part of the classification of substances known as opioids. (3) Heroin use has been on a steady increase since 2007. (4) Approximately 1.1 million individuals reported using heroin within a 12 month period, and approximately 1.0 million were diagnosed with a substance use disorder associated with opioid use. (5) With heroin use on the rise throughout the country, some individuals may wonder, is heroin a depressant or a stimulant? We explore and answer this question throughout this article.

If you or a loved one are having difficulties controlling heroin or opioid use, seeking treatment may be the answer. Here at Guardian Recovery, we work with you to identify an effective and comprehensive care plan that can meet your treatment needs. With psychoeducationtherapeutic interventions, and life skills classes provided, Guardian Recovery can help you begin a sober lifestyle. Addiction isn’t easy, but you are not alone. Our experienced team of clinicians can provide you or a family member with evidence-based expertise. Contact us today to learn more and to get started on your wellness journey.

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What Are Depressants?

Depressants are substances that slow down the central nervous system in the body. Depressants are different from stimulants due to the fact that stimulants speed up the central nervous system and the body. Depressants can be prescribed by a doctor in order to relax nerves and muscles. The physical, calming effects caused by depressants is one of the reasons why they are highly addictive. Like heroin, alcohol is another example of a commonly used depressant.

Depressants are prescribed to help treat the following: (6)

  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Stress
  • Insomnia and other sleep disorders
  • Seizures

Common street names used for depressants include: (7)

  • Barbs
  • Benzos
  • Downers
  • Liquid X
  • Nerve Pills
  • Tranks
  • Roofies
  • Reds
  • Yellows

Depressants & Their Effects on the Brain

Depressants impact the body by increasing the amount of gamma-aminobutyric, also known as GABA, within the brain. (8) GABA is a chemical that prevents normal brian activity, which can lead to a feeling of calmness. Heroin and other depressants impact the brain’s reward system. The brain’s reward system is activated whenever we experience rewarding or pleasurable experiences. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released whenever a rewarding experience takes place. (9) The increase of dopamine in the brain is one of the reasons why individuals develop substance dependencies over time. Once a substance that is regularly used is stopped, the sudden decrease in dopamine causes the individual to crave the drug in order to satisfy their cravings, and to alleviate any negative withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms & Side Effects of Taking Depressants

Excessive or continuous use of depressants can cause unwanted short-term and long-term side health effects. Even when prescribed, side effects of depressants can occur within the first few days of taking them.

Short-Term Effects

Short-term effects associated with taking depressants include: (10)

  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Slowed breathing
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Difficulties with coordination
  • Headache
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting

Long-Term Effects

Long-term effects associated with taking depressants include: (11)

  • Physical and psychological dependence.
  • The need to ingest large amounts of the substance in order to experience the desired effects.
  • Withdrawal symptoms.

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Heroin & Depressants Affect the Central Nervous System

Heroin, and other depressants, slow down the central nervous system. The central nervous system comprises the brian and spinal cord. The central nervous system is responsible for sending messages back and forth between the brain and the body. (12) With signals reaching the brain at a slower pace, automatic actions, such as breathing, are impacted.

Heroin & Pain Relief

Due to the way that heroin targets the brain, it can reduce pain. Using heroin as a pain reliever can increase the chances of experiencing extreme sedation, breathing problems, and overdose.

Common Prescription Opioids & Depressants

Like heroin, prescription opioids can help relieve pain following an injury or surgery.

The most common prescription opioids include: (13)

  • Oxycodone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Morphine
  • Fentanyl
  • Codeine
  • Methadone
  • Tapentadol
  • Hydromorphone

The most common prescription depressants include: (14)

  • Benzodiazepines (Valium, Klonopin, Xanax)
  • Non-benzodiazepine sedative hypnotics (Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata)
  • Barbiturates (Mebara, Luminal, Nembutal)

Depressants & Mood Disorders

Excessive use of depressants can lead to symptoms that are associated with depression. These symptoms may include difficulties concentrating, reduced ability to experience pleasure, and insomnia. Stopping depressant use, after chronically engaging in them, can lead to extreme agitation and feelings of anxiousness. These symptoms are involved in various mood disorders. (15) Using depressants or heroin regularly can trigger depressive episodes.

Abusing & Overdosing on Heroin & Depressants

Engaging continuously or chronically in any substance can lead to an individual experiencing an overdose. Approximately 13,165 individuals died from an overdose associated with heroin use, in the year of 2020. (16) Approximately 68,630 individuals experienced an overdose related death due to opioid use and other depressants. (17)

Signs and symptoms associated with a heroin overdose include: (18)

  • Small pupils
  • Difficulties breathing
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Blue skin

Naloxone and suboxone are medications used to help treat opioid use disorder or opioid related overdoses. They work best when given immediately. Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect that you or a loved one are experiencing a heroin or opioid overdose. (19)

Dangers of Abusing Depressants

Chronically or excessively using depressants can lead to dangerous side effects or overdose. An individual can overdose on a depressant if they take more than they are prescribed, engage in it daily, or take multiple doses at one time. Overdosing on depressants can cause breathing to decrease tremendously or completely stop. This can impact the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, leading to hypoxia. Hypoxia can lead to coma or brain damage. (20)

Signs and symptoms associated with heroin or opioid use disorder include:

  • Intense cravings.
  • Continued opioid use despite experiencing negative consequences.
  • Difficulties controlling how much of the substance is taken.
  • Isolating oneself since beginning opioid use.
  • No longer being interested in personal obligations, such as occupational or relational responsibilities.
  • Increased desire to sleep.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Experiencing significant weight loss.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

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Guardian Recovery can help individuals who are experiencing addiction to substances such as heroin, alcohol, and other depressants. With various levels of care, such as parietal hospitalization, outpatient, and aftercare planning, multiple treatment options are available. Contact us today to receive a free, no obligation insurance benefits check. Once you reach out, a Treatment Advisor will speak with you to help jumpstart your recovery journey. Recovery is possible here at Guardian Recovery.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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