Sedative-Hypnotics: their Pharmacology and where they are used?

Sedative-hypnotics are a class of drugs that work on the central nervous system (CNS) to produce a calming or drowsy effect and are often prescribed for insomnia, anxiety, and seizure disorders. They can be classified into three main categories: benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and Z-drugs (non-benzodiazepine hypnotics). Here’s a brief overview of these classes, along with some examples of individual agents and their pharmacology:

1. Benzodiazepines:

Benzodiazepines work by enhancing the effect of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the CNS, leading to sedation, muscle relaxation, and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects.

Examples: a. Diazepam (Valium) b. Lorazepam (Ativan) c. Alprazolam (Xanax) d. Clonazepam (Klonopin)


  • Mechanism of action: Benzodiazepines bind to a specific site on the GABA-A receptor, increasing the frequency of chloride ion channel opening, thereby enhancing the inhibitory effect of GABA.
  • Absorption: Oral absorption is generally rapid and complete.
  • Distribution: Benzodiazepines are lipophilic and, therefore, easily cross the blood-brain barrier and placenta.
  • Metabolism: Most benzodiazepines are metabolized in the liver through oxidative pathways.
  • Excretion: Benzodiazepine metabolites are excreted in the urine.

2. Barbiturates:

Barbiturates also act on the GABA-A receptor, but their mechanism of action differs from that of benzodiazepines. They are less commonly used today due to their narrow therapeutic window and high potential for abuse.

Examples: a. Phenobarbital b. Secobarbital (Seconal) c. Pentobarbital (Nembutal) d. Amobarbital (Amytal)


  • Mechanism of action: Barbiturates bind to a distinct site on the GABA-A receptor, increasing the duration of chloride ion channel opening and potentiating the inhibitory effect of GABA.
  • Absorption: Oral absorption varies depending on the specific agent.
  • Distribution: Barbiturates are lipophilic and can cross the blood-brain barrier and placenta.
  • Metabolism: Barbiturates are metabolized in the liver, primarily through oxidative pathways.
  • Excretion: Barbiturate metabolites are excreted in the urine.


Mechanism of Action of Benzodiazepines and Barbiturates as sedative-hypbotics
Mechanism of Action of Benzodiazepines and Barbiturates

In this diagram:

  • Benzodiazepines and Barbiturates enhance the effect of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), an inhibitory neurotransmitter, on its receptor. This leads to a reduction in neuronal activity.
  • Barbiturates can also inhibit glutamate receptors, which are generally excitatory, further contributing to their depressant effect.
  • At high doses, Barbiturates can directly activate GABA receptors even in the absence of GABA.
  • The overall effect of these actions is relaxation, sedation, and anxiolysis (reduction of anxiety).

3. Z-drugs (Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics):

Z-drugs also act on the GABA-A receptor but have a more selective action, which is thought to result in fewer side effects and a lower risk of dependence compared to benzodiazepines and barbiturates.

Examples: Zolpidem, Zaleplon and Eszopiclone 


  • Mechanism of action: Z-drugs selectively bind to the alpha-1 subunit of the GABA-A receptor, enhancing the inhibitory effect of GABA.
  • Absorption: Oral absorption is rapid and extensive.
  • Distribution: Z-drugs are lipophilic and can cross the blood-brain barrier and placenta.
  • Metabolism: Z-drugs are primarily metabolized in the liver, predominantly through the CYP450 system.
  • Excretion: Metabolites of Z-drugs are excreted in the urine.
Class Subclass Drug Name Common Uses


Short-acting Triazolam Insomnia
Oxazepam Anxiety, alcohol withdrawal
Intermediate-acting Alprazolam Anxiety, panic disorder
Lorazepam Anxiety, insomnia, seizures
Temazepam Insomnia
Long-acting Diazepam Anxiety, muscle spasms, seizures, alcohol withdrawal
Chlordiazepoxide Anxiety, alcohol withdrawal
Clonazepam Anxiety, seizures






Anesthesia induction, short procedures
Methohexital Anesthesia induction, short procedures
Short and intermediate-acting Secobarbital Insomnia, preoperative sedation
Pentobarbital Insomnia, seizures, preoperative sedation
Amobarbital Insomnia, seizures, preoperative sedation
Long-acting Phenobarbital Seizures, anxiety, sedation
Mephobarbital Seizures, anxiety, sedation


Nonbenzodiazepines Zolpidem Insomnia
Zaleplon Insomnia
Eszopiclone Insomnia
The above table includes the classification of benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and Z-drugs (nonbenzodiazepines) in detail. Please note that this classification is not exhaustive, and more detailed information can be found in various pharmacology resources.

Some important aspects to bear in mind when prescribing sedative-hypnotics include:

Caution is required when combining sedative-hypnotics with other CNS depressants, such as alcohol, opioids, or antihistamines, as this may lead to increased sedation and an increased risk of respiratory depression.

  • When used in older patients, the dose may need to be reduced to lower the risk of falls and cognitive impairment.
  • Patients with a history of substance abuse and/or those predisposed to addiction should be closely monitored when using sedative-hypnotics, as there is a risk of developing dependence.
  • After long-term usage, these drugs should be withdrawn gradually to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

In summary, these drugs are commonly used for the treatment of insomnia, anxiety, and seizure disorders. It’s essential to emphasize that the administration of sedative-hypnotics must always be closely supervised by a medical professional, as these medications can result in dependence, tolerance, and potential misuse. Furthermore, sedative-hypnotics can provoke various side effects, including sleepiness, vertigo, impaired coordination, and cognitive dysfunction.

When prescribing sedative-hypnotics, healthcare practitioners should take into account the patient’s specific medical background, the intended treatment duration, and the possibility of drug interactions. Generally, short-term use is advised, and the lowest effective dose should be prescribed to reduce the likelihood of adverse effects and dependence.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions related to medication or treatment.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always seek the advice of a healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition.

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