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Barbiturates Vs. Benzodiazepines

by Landmark Recovery

September 19, 2018
A man sitting and wondering what a barbituate is

When identifying prescription drugs it’s imperative to understand the difference between barbiturates and benzodiazepines. While they are both painkillers that contain similar symptoms and effects these prescription medications are actually used for two different treatments. Misidentifying these drugs are easy, and in certain cases an honest mistake could also be a deadly one. Without further ado, let’s get into the differences between barbiturates and benzodiazepines and how it can affect you.


What Are Barbiturates?

A man sitting and wondering what a barbituate is

A barbiturate is a Central Nervous Depressant (CNS) used for anything from normal sedation to capital punishment. Long used as an anxiolytic or hypnotic, barbiturates were originally designed as a form of sleeping pills, and to help those with high levels of anxiety. In high doses, barbiturates were, and still are currently being used in physician assisted suicide as well as capital punishment. Barbiturates are highly addictive, in both a physical and mental capacity. Today, barbiturates are most commonly used as general anesthetics under supervised medical care, as they have been deemed too unsafe to use in everyday medical practices such as prescription medication.


What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are also Central Nervous Depressants, however they offer a more mild sedation than their aggressive counterparts. They enhance the receptors of neurotransmitters, resulting in a mild sedated physical experience. There are three inner-classifications of benzodiazepines; short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting. Relatively self-explanatory, these classifications simply label the amount of time this drugs’ effects last on people. Similar to their counterpart, benzodiazepines can be extremely addictive, even if there is less toxicity involved. Like most drugs, avoid drinking while on this medication as well as combining this drug with others before consumption.


History of Barbiturates

Barbiturates were discovered in 1864 by Adolf von Bayer and later brought onto the market in 1904 by Farbwerke Fr Bayer and Company. The original purpose of barbiturates was to treat a variety of cases involving neurological and psychological imbalance. More specifically, barbiturates were initially used to control seizures and help insomniacs sleep. At the turn of the 20th century, over 2500 barbiturates had been synthesized, with more than 30 being used in a clinical setting.

One of the more troubling aspects of early barbiturate release was an underestimation of addiction potential. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a research paper vindicating the addiction potential of barbiturates was published, thus making any adverse effects of the drug transparently public for the first time. As previously stated, barbiturates have been almost entirely replaced by benzodiazepines; and the remaining 5 or 6 barbiturates still in use are all general anesthetics provided under diligent medical care.


Everyday Uses of Barbiturates

Currently, barbiturates are rarely used for headaches, seizures, and insomnia. Additionally, barbiturates are used in general anesthetics under professional medical care. Since, they are one of the older classification of drugs, the use of barbiturates has dramatically decreased in the last 50 years, as modern medical advancements offer much safer alternatives.


History of Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines were the century-late predecessor to barbiturates; not being discovered until 1955 by chemist Leo Sternbach. By 1963, Valium had been discovered, and it’s still a popular prescribed medication to this day. Due to decreased toxicity, medical professionals gave rave reviews regarding benzodiazepines, as many of the medical concerns regarding barbiturates weren’t present with “benzos”.

By the 1970s benzodiazepines had become one the most prescribed drugs in the world. That popularity caused major problems however, as scientists’ growing concerns regarding abuse and dependence began to emerge in the 1980s. The response to this crisis was to make information on the drug readily available to the public so that those who were unsure of how to use benzodiazepines didn’t cause any self-harm, either accidental or purposeful. This was especially prevalent in the elderly, as increased age required more prescriber caution.


Everyday Uses of Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines treat illnesses that may be causing an increased amount of activity in the brain. For example, benzodiazepines have been known to assist those who suffer from seizures, anxiety, insomnia, and alcohol withdrawal. Similar to barbiturates, benzodiazepines can also act as general anesthetic during surgeries. Also, benzos have been known to help those with various panic disorders as well.



Both barbiturates and benzodiazepines affect the human body in a similar manner. The range of effects can be determined more accurately by dosage versus the chemical structure of the drugs. Another similarity between the two drugs is that they are both very volatile to consume if the correct dosage cannot be determined. Many famous celebrities have been known to overdose on barbiturates or benzodiazepines, with Marilyn Monroe being among the most prominent.

The most essential commonality to understand between barbiturates and benzodiazepines is how to safely withdraw from said drugs. Both drugs are highly addictive and can cause many to attempt to withdraw on their own. This is extremely dangerous and should not be attempted without consulting medical assistance beforehand. Unknown to many, there are severe side effects associated with cold turkey withdrawal and in the case of barbiturates and benzodiazepines, those side effects include but are not limited to; seizures, comas, and in certain cases even death.



Barbiturates are much more potent than benzodiazepines, which is the most significant reason why the latter eventually replaced the former in everyday medical practices. Daytime sedation was one of the many breakthroughs to be discovered as benzodiazepines were introduced into the pharmaceutical industry. The possibility of daytime sedation wasn’t realistically safe with barbiturates, as the potency was very difficult to measure in daily doses. Additionally, barbiturates are immensely more volatile to mix with other substances, medically advised or not, another reason why the less toxic benzodiazepines replaced them.

The creation of benzodiazepines eliminated many of the major concerns that had been previously associated with barbiturates. The toxicity of benzodiazepines was lowered tremendously, resulting in a safer medication for the public to consume. The most common usage of benzodiazepines in today’s medical practice is as an anti-anxiety agent. Age plays a factor with benzos as increased age equates to an increased chance of side effects. For those suffering from insomnia, sleep disorders may follow abrupt discontinuation of benzodiazepines.



While the toxicity between barbiturates and benzodiazepines favors the former, the sheer availability of benzodiazepines as a prescription drug makes them more dangerous. With addiction potential sky high, mass availability to benzodiazepines make the two a lethal combination. The simplicity it takes for someone to receive the same prescription medication from multiple doctors is asinine. Obviously, if someone can get access to an excess amount of medication, they can become addicted to benzos. As if this wasn’t enough to already be concerned about, benzodiazepine dependence can be so strong that any attempt to try and stop taking the drug after accumulating an addiction can be fatal.

Gauging the lethality of barbiturates is more difficult as many of the modern medical advances used today weren’t around during the peak of barbiturates popularity. Currently speaking, barbiturates pose a significantly less threat to society than benzodiazepines. They have been removed from the public almost entirely, minus occasional prescriptions for those in special cases, making availability to the drug relatively impossible without supervised medical care/observation. Due to this fact, benzodiazepines, in mass, supersede barbiturates on the scale of lethality.


In Conclusion

There have always been pros and cons associated with individually using benzodiazepines and barbiturates. While barbiturates were more of a revolutionary medical discovery, the true medical advancement arrived courtesy of benzodiazepines. Chemists ability to fine-tune previously adopted medicine has resulted in safer consumable products for the public. At the end of the day, it’s imperative to heed doctor’s advice if you find yourself consuming any of the drugs listed in this article. If so, I’m sure you’ll receive the physical/emotional relief that barbiturates and benzodiazepines have to offer.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.