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A Guide on Stimulants vs. Depressants

A Guide on Stimulants vs. Depressants

Stimulant and depressant drugs are nearly opposites. The only characteristic these drugs share is that they both have an altering effect on the brain and body. However, the side effects of stimulants and depressants differ greatly. The difference between stimulants and depressants is that stimulants increase activity in the central nervous system (CNS), while depressants decrease activity. This is why the former is known as “uppers” and the latter as “downers.” To better understand these drugs and their risks, our Heartland drug rehab is sharing a guide on stimulants vs. depressants.

Stimulants vs. Depressants: What’s the Difference?

The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system (made up of the autonomic nervous system and the somatic nervous system) controls bodily functions, regulates glands, controls muscle movement, and relays information from the ears, eyes, and skin to the central nervous system. This information is integrated and then influences and coordinates various functions and activities in the body.

Both stimulants and depressants impact the CNS and can lead to dependence and even addiction if misused for long periods. People abuse these drugs by taking them in larger doses than recommended, taking them without prescriptions from doctors, mixing them with other drugs, and administering them in ways they aren't meant to.

The longer this process persists, the more stimulants and depressants users need to experience the same effects or highs. This process is known as the development of tolerance. As tolerance to depressants or stimulants increases, a user’s risk of addiction and life-threatening overdose do, as well.

To better understand how these drugs work and the risks associated with their misuse, below is a comparison of stimulant vs. depressant drugs.


Stimulants are drugs that stimulate or increase neural activity in the central nervous system. Most stimulants act on neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) like norepinephrine and dopamine, to not only increase concentration but also to improve mood. While norepinephrine affects the blood vessels, blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar levels, and breathing, dopamine reinforces rewarding behaviors.

Types of Stimulant Drugs

There are both prescription and illicit stimulants. Common prescription stimulants include dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), dextroamphetamine/amphetamine combination (Adderall), and methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta). These medications are normally prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. They increase alertness and energy, improve concentration, and help to control impulsive behavior.

Aside from prescribable stimulants, there are also illegal stimulants like methamphetamine, cocaine, and khat. These drugs are normally sold on the streets and laced with various products and chemicals. In addition to their unregulated impact on the CNS, illegal stimulants also contain various harmful materials called cutting agents.

Cutting agents are used by drug dealers to make drugs appear to be of better quality or make them more addictive to keep customers coming back for more. These additives range in their dangers and can include anything from baby powder to the potent opioid fentanyl. Illicit stimulants like cocaine and meth are highly addictive and can lead to addiction within a short period.

Effects of Stimulants

When prescription stimulants are taken as prescribed, they mitigate ADHD symptoms and narcolepsy by increasing energy levels, improving concentration and focus, and reducing impulsivity. However, because these drugs are often abused for their euphoric effects, side effects that would be minor in safer circumstances become worse.

Common side effects of stimulants include:

  • Elevated blood pressure and heart rate
  • Increased breathing
  • Decreased blood flow
  • Vasoconstriction or constricted blood vessels
  • Increased blood sugar levels

In high doses, both prescription and illicit stimulants can lead to complications like high body temperature, irregular heartbeat, heart failure, and seizures. Other negative health effects of stimulant abuse include psychosis, anger, and paranoia.

Many recreational stimulant users also administer these drugs intravenously (injected into the vein). Intravenous, or IV, drug use can lengthen the list of complications, increasing the risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis. Life-threatening overdoses are also more likely when a drug is administered in a way that releases it too quickly into the body.


Depressants are drugs that reduce activity in the central nervous system, leading to sedation and drowsiness, among other reactions. These drugs often act on neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) to slow down communications between nerve cells. When taken in high doses, these drugs can also severely impair judgment and other functions.

Types of Depressants

Common types of prescription depressants include benzodiazepines like Valium and Klonopin; barbiturates like Luminal and Nembutal; and non-benzo sedative-hypnotics like Ambien and Lunesta. Various types of depressants are also categorized into sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics.

Generally, most CNS depressants act on the brain by increasing the activity of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that’s responsible for reducing nerve cell communication. This action results in drowsiness, relaxation, and sedation, which is why most depressants are used to treat anxiety, panic, and sleep disorders.

An example of illegal depressants is methaqualone. Also known as quaaludes, this drug is a synthetic, barbiturate-like depressant that became a popular recreational drug in the 1960s up until it was banned by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the 1980s.

Many people also abuse prescription depressant drugs, which is illegal to do. As with stimulants, abusing depressants can also lead to increased tolerance, addiction, and an increased risk of overdose. Depressants are often mixed with alcohol and other similar-acting drugs to intensify their side effects, which further increases the risk of overdose and toxicity.

Side Effects of Depressants

People who start taking CNS depressants as prescribed usually feel sleepy and uncoordinated for the first week or so until their body adjusts to the medication. During this time, some adverse or uncomfortable side effects may occur.

Common side effects of depressants include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Sedation
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Light-headedness
  • Dry mouth
  • Problems with movement and coordination
  • Memory problems
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing

Additional effects of depressants that may occur more intensely from misuse include impaired judgment, loss of consciousness, and overdose. Respiratory depression or shallow and ineffective breathing is also a major risk of depressant abuse. It’s the most common and deadliest symptom of depressant overdose and requires medical attention.

Help for Stimulant and Depressant Drug Addiction

Both stimulant and depressant abuse can lead to addiction. While addiction is a chronic disease that can take over one’s life without a care, professional treatment is available to those who want a chance at a sober and fulfilling lifestyle. Our rehab facility offers inpatient substance abuse treatment in Illinois that provides a safe, comfortable, and effective method of care that can help you or a loved one get sober.

Starting with medically monitored detox, our specialists first address the physical needs of the patient to pave the way for a smoother recovery. Withdrawal is a challenging process that’s marked by uncomfortable symptoms, so much so that many relapse during this phase of recovery. For this reason, our Heartland detox programs are led by a medical team that provides 24-hour care and medical assistance to clients to ensure they safely complete detox.

Don’t struggle with addiction any longer. Call Banyan Treatment Center Heartland today at 888-280-4763 to find out how our drug rehabilitation in Illinois can help.

Related Reading:

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Psychosis: Symptoms & Timeline
What Is the Strongest Stimulant?
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.