When we think of depressant drugs, we often focus on the most obvious. This would include things like alcohol, painkillers, benzodiazepines, and heroin. Of course, alcohol has been problematic since hundreds, if not thousands, of years. These other substances — opioid painkillers, benzos, and heroin — have become much more troublesome recently, particularly in the past several decades. To be clear, these are substances that are very much prone to abuse; individuals who are addicted to these substances are likely to have intentionally taken large amounts to become intoxicated. However, there are other depressants that are a bit more complicated, such as gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, which you probably know as GHB.
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What exactly is GHB?
Although GHB is reported to have been first synthesized in 1874, it wasn’t until much later — the 1960s to be specific — that there would actually be interest in the drug. In the early 1960s, Dr. Henri Laborit, a French surgeon known for his research on surgical anesthetics and an antipsychotic medication call chlorpromazine, had started using GHB in his studies of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that the body utilizes to calm down and relax during times of great stress.
If you’ve done much reading about other mind-altering drugs, you’ve probably noticed that many of them either act like GABA in the brain, causing profound relaxation and depressing the central nervous system, or they affect GABA receptors, causing them to bond more or less strongly with GABA. Certain depressants — particularly alcohol, benzodiazepines, and GHB to name but a few — exaggerate the GABA effect in the brain, which is what causes the characteristic drowsiness, sluggishness, and loss of coordination that’s attributed to a number of depressant drugs.
In his research, Laborit found GHB to be quite an effective drug, especially since it had minimal side effects at therapeutic dosages and had a relatively short duration of effects. However, there were caveats. For one thing, Laborit found that a therapeutic dose of GHB has a very narrow range, meaning that it’s quite easy to administer too much. As well, GHB was greatly affected by the presence of other substances in the body. In particular, if an individual drank alcohol or took other depressants while GHB was in his or her system, the effects of the GHB would be amplified to dangerous levels.
A number of European countries used GHB in medicine. Specifically, it was often used as an anesthetic during childbirth and as a prescribed medication for individuals who suffered from severe insomnia. Eventually, however, the medical community recognized that GHB had strong potential for abuse, resulting in a steady decrease in the drug’s medical use over time. It was decided that the public should has as limited access to GHB as possible since the drug could be both abused and used to develop other recreational drugs. Today, GHB is hardly used in medical settings a all. In fact, the only instances GHB may be used is for those who suffer from narcolepsy and in the treatment of the most severe cases of alcoholism.
Recently, GHB has gained a rather ominous reputation due to its frequent use as both a ‘date rape drug’ and a ‘club drug’. As a date rape drug, GHB can be administered to a predator’s intended victim, leaving the individual either unconscious or barely conscious; this essentially makes them helpless in instances of rape and abuse. Meanwhile, the drug has become extremely popular among those who frequent bars and nightclubs; at somewhat lower doses, GHB is a depressant with certain psychoactive properties that have garnered comparisons to MDMA and ecstasy. Perhaps the most sobering reality of GHB is that it can be both a weapon and a recreational drug.
Effects of GHB
Also sometimes called rohypnol, ‘liquid ecstasy’, or just ‘G’, GHB is enjoyed by clubgoers and individuals who attend ‘raves’ due to the euphoria that the drug can induce at certain dosages. Again, this euphoria is what garners GHB frequent comparison to ecstasy and MDMA despite the fact that GHB is a depressant while MDMA and ecstasy are largely considered stimulants. Other effects of GHB include increased sexuality, libido, and a profound sense of calm and relaxation.
However, since it’s quite easy to take to much of the drug, there are a number of adverse effects that users often experience, including dizziness, nausea and vomiting, hallucinations, sweating, loss of consciousness (which is reported by nearly 70 percent of all GHB users), and amnesia. In fact, its tendency to induce amnesia — meaning that those who ingest the drug often don’t remember the events that transpired afterward — is another reason why GHB is a favorite weapon of sexual predators; those who are victimized sometimes don’t even remember what happened to them. And the worst possible side effects include things like coma and death.
GHB withdrawal symptoms
When a person continues to abuse GHB recreationally over a period of time, he or she is likely to become physiologically dependent on the drug. GHB addiction essentially prevents a person from being able to go periods of time without using the drug or else they’ll experience withdrawal. The most common GHB withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, auditory and/or visual hallucinations, trembling and shaking in the limbs and extremities, sweating, panic attacks, and high blood pressure. Due to the effects of GHB on the brain’s GABA levels, it could potentially be quite dangerous for a person addicted to GHB to stop taking the drug suddenly without some sort of medical supervision.
Overcoming addiction to GHB
As dangerous as it is for a person addicted to GHB to abruptly stop taking the drug, it can actually be done safely if the individual takes advantage of the various recovery resources that are available. Typically, it’s recommended that the individual begin with an initial detox period so that the body can detoxify and severe its physical dependence on GHB. Afterward, the individual can proceed to the actual treatment phase of rehabilitation, which amounts to extensive psychotherapy, group therapy, and various other elements. Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all program for overcoming addiction. The important thing is to find the resources that best address one’s unique needs, allowing him or her to safely and effectively overcome GHB addiction.