Monday, September 6
 Editor's note: This is the fifth of an eight-part series of articles examining the effects of commonly abused substances on athletic performance and overall health. Dr. Gary Wadler, a New York University School of Medicine professor and lead author of the book "Drugs and the Athlete", has also won the International Olympic Committee President's Prize for his work in the area of performance-enhancing drugs in competitive sports. He joined us to address the issue of barbiturate use and sports performance.

What are barbiturates?

Barbituates are drugs. Experts classify them as depressants because people who abuse them get depressed to the point where their central nervous system (CNS) may not work at all.

Commonly called "downers," they are frequently identified on the street by their color -- "blue heavens, "yellow jackets" or "red devils."

Barbiturates are illegal without a prescription and, in fact, are a controlled substance like narcotics. They can be highly addictive, and withdrawal may produce severe symptoms, including death. They are especially dangerous when combined with alcohol.

What are the effects of barbiturates?

The adverse physical health effects of barbiturates may include:

  • Sedation and somnolence
  • Decreased attention span
  • Memory impairment
  • Impaired thinking
  • Decreased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Fainting
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired memory and judgment
  • Stupor, coma
  • Death from depression of respiratory centers in the brain

Rebound anxiety, restlessness and insomnia may result from abrupt discontinuation of barbiturates. "Barbiturates can cause a worsening of pre-existing emotional disorders, particularly depression," says Wadler, "and can trigger psychotic episodes, including hallucinations."

How long do the effects last?

"Traditionally, barbiturates are divided into four groups based on the duration of their effects: long-lasting, intermediate acting, short-acting and very short acting," says Wadler. "The duration of the effects of barbiturates can range last from two to three hours for the short-acting forms to as long as six to 10 hours for the longer-acting drugs."

Are barbiturates addictive?

Yes. Tolerance and psychological and physical dependence may occur with continued use of barbiturates. Tolerance simply means that larger and larger doses of the drug are required to obtain the same effect. "Individuals who are psychologically dependent on barbiturates -- i.e., they crave the drug after its effects disappear -- may subsequently increase the dosage or decrease the dosage interval, which may then lead to a physical dependency," according to Wadler. "Once physical dependency develops, the abrupt cessation of the drug may result in withdrawal symptoms, including tremors, sweating, delirium, convulsions and possibly death."

Are barbiturates included in drug testing in sports?

Barbiturates are not generally perceived to be performance-enhancing. However, their use in sports to reduce anxiety is certainly well known. As with all drugs, the athlete should be specifically aware as to whether or not the barbiturates are banned in their sport. Barbiturates are readily detected in the urine, and the long-acting barbiturates can be detected for as long as two to three weeks following their use.