Commonly prescribed sedatives, or central nervous system depressants, in the benzodiazepine category include Valium, Xanax, Halcion and ProSom, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Ambien, Sonata and Lunesta are non-benzodiazepine sleep medications with fewer side effects and a lower risk of dependence. All of these medications affect the same brain receptors by inhibiting activity and calm anxiety or produce drowsiness.
Barbiturates, such as Nembutal and Mebaral, have a high risk for overdose and do not typically treat anxiety or sleep disorders, explains the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Doctors use these medications during surgery and to treat seizure disorders.
Because benzodiazepines treat insomnia and reduce anxiety, patients often take them to manage the agitation, hyperactivity, racing thoughts and decreased need for sleep experienced in manic phases of bipolar disorder, reports Drugs.com. These fast-acting, highly addictive drugs, typically reserved for short-term, temporary use, have an especially high risk for dependence for people aged 65 and older. Benzodiazepines can cause aggressive behavior in some individuals. Pregnant women who take benzodiazepines increase the risk for birth defects, especially cleft palate. Drugs in the benzodiazepine class slow the nervous system down by increasing the brain’s neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutryic acid, or GABA. The resulting sedative effect calms anxiousness, relieves nervousness and reduces unprovoked anger.