What Is GHB?
GHB is a metabolite of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, a chemical we naturally produce in the brain. It exists in very low concentrations in the brain and increases the activity of the GABA neurotransmitter. By boosting levels of GABA, brain activity slows, and additionally, it has depressant effects on the central nervous system. But when GHB is synthesized and taken in larger doses, it can cause dangerous effects on the body. Many of these relaxing and intoxicating effects are similar to alcohol and benzodiazepines, two substances that are extremely addictive and lead to terrible withdrawal symptoms when a person stops using the drugs.
In the early 1960s, scientists realized that GHB had sedative and hypnotic properties. They realized that when the brain flooded with GHB, a person could lose consciousness fairly quickly. Medical researchers synthesized the drug to use in high doses as an anesthetic. This usage didn’t last for long because GHB did not have any analgesic properties, and patients reported feeling too much pain during and after surgery. It was briefly used as a treatment for narcolepsy as well, but it didn’t prove to be very effective for that, either.
In the 1980s, GHB was sold as a dietary supplement intended to improve athletic performance. Shortly after this, however, there were thousands of reports of people being hospitalized and suffering from severe illness and death because of taking the GHB supplements. The Drug Enforcement Agency declared GHB an illicit drug in the year 2000, and it was moved to Schedule I on the Controlled Substances list. This means the government considers GHB to be a dangerous and addictive drug with no medical benefit.
The drug has many nicknames, including G, Gina, Liquid Ecstasy, Goop and others. It is produced illegally in domestic and overseas laboratories and sold as a white powder or a clear liquid. It is often packaged in vials or small bottles. GHB is often abused by teens and young adults at nightclubs, sex parties and raves, and it has been cited as a “date rape” drug used to facilitate sexual assault, similar to Rohypnol. At parties, the drug is sold in liquid form in capfuls for $5 to $25 per cap. People often take the drug with alcohol, methamphetamine, MDMA or ketamine to intensify the effects, which can cause respiratory depression and coma. On its own, it produces euphoric and sedative effects, increased sex drive and tranquility and can cause unconsciousness and memory loss, similar to the effects of barbiturates and methaqualone.
GHB is a deceptive drug because many people are dosed unknowingly or, if they take it intentionally, they don’t remember the experience or negative side effects of the drug. That leads to the mistaken idea that the drug doesn’t have any harmful effects. But the side effects can include hallucinations, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, vision changes, seizures, memory loss, sweating, slow heart rate and blackouts. But GHB is a highly addictive substance. Overcoming GHB addiction is considered to be as difficult as stopping a heroin addiction. There are severe withdrawal symptoms when people stop taking GHB, which is why many people end up relapsing when they are trying to quit.
When users take the drug repeatedly at low doses, they can develop a tolerance to its effects. Over time, they will need to take more and more of the drug to get the same effect. This is extremely dangerous because it gets to a point where a person is taking very high doses to feel anything, which can easily lead to overdose or death.
If you think that you or someone you know is under the effects of GHB, you might see some of these signs:
- Passing out
- Erratic breathing
If you see someone exhibiting these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Another factor that compounds the harm that can come from GHB use is that medical personnel rarely know that a person has taken or been given GHB. Thus, it’s hard to give them the medical care that they need.
In any event, repeated use of GHB will lead to an addiction, eventually. And aside from dealing with addiction and the subsequent withdrawal and recovery, a person might suffer from permanent side effects that can diminish their quality of life. In rare cases, some people have reported lasting, chronic health problems from abusing GHB. These might include:
- Neuralgia in the extremities, producing tremors, numbness or tingling fingers or hands
- Memory loss and cognitive impairment
- Mood disorders like depression or anxiety
- Persistent cravings over time
To avoid painful and damaging side effects like these, it is critical to address a GHB addiction and undergo substance abuse treatment to ensure a safe detox and successful recovery.
Dealing With GHB Withdrawal
GHB acts on GABA receptors in the brain similar to the way benzodiazepines and alcohol do. This means it has similar withdrawal symptoms to alcohol and benzos, which are complicated and can have potentially lethal effects. Many people are “slipped” GHB in a drink or other consumables, and the person who consumes it won’t even know they have taken it. But others abuse GHB for recreational purposes and may develop a dependency.
The people who use GHB vary from a person who has been dosed with the drug unknowingly to someone who takes it deliberately because they think it has some kind of health benefit.
A list of typical users might include:
- People trying to lose weight
- People taking it as a muscle-building supplement
- People using it as an anti-aging compound
- Teens and young adults who take it at parties and raves
- People who are drawn to alcohol or benzodiazepines
- People with chronic pain
- People suffering from depression or anxiety
When people suddenly stop taking GHB after a period of using, they are at risk for experiencing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. It is best to seek a medically supervised detox for GHB withdrawal, which can involve a tapering process to help control and reduce the risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Symptoms of GHB Withdrawal
- Increased heart rate
- Psychotic thoughts
- High blood pressure
- Physical tremors
- Extreme confusion
- Changes in mood
GHB withdrawal can be severe and incapacitating. The discomfort and intense cravings can cause a person to start using GHB again and continue the cycle of abuse. This leads to a greater risk of overdose because a person’s tolerance will have already decreased and they will have a hard time metabolizing high doses.
When a person stops using, GHB withdrawal symptoms can begin within just a few hours because it is metabolized so rapidly. The first signs of withdrawal include anxiety attacks, rapid pulse, high blood pressure and sweating. For people who have not used GHB for very long, the symptoms will get better after a few days. If a person has been abusing high doses of GHB for some time, it’s more likely that they will have different stages of the withdrawal process. Mild GHB withdrawal usually takes three to five days while severe withdrawal might take up to two weeks.
After the initial stage of dealing with GHB withdrawal, a person will enter stage two and might experience hallucinations, an altered mental and emotional state and changes in sleep and cognition. It is a very similar state to a person detoxing from severe alcohol abuse, including delirium tremens, seizures, psychosis, and uncontrollable shaking. As this stage starts to pass, a person might have a few more days of lingering cravings, mood changes, exhaustion and anxiety.
Withdrawal symptoms for GHB progress in unpredictable and intermittent periods in which a person can start to feel better and then experience worse symptoms and vice versa. GHB addiction treatment hasn’t yet established any standardized protocols, and there is still a lot of disagreement in the substance abuse treatment community about which protocols to use to treat GHB withdrawal. But many detox facilities offer medically monitored doses of benzodiazepines, such as Valium, to make the initial symptoms more bearable. This largely applies to users at higher risk of developing PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Symptoms).
During GHB withdrawal, it is helpful to try to minimize the duration of symptoms and ease the GABA receptors off of the drug with careful administration of medical care. This helps to improve the physical experience and heighten a person’s mood, which helps to lower the risk of relapse.
Some detox units and medical professionals might also use small doses of other medical treatments, such as barbiturates, anticonvulsant medications or antipsychotic drugs to treat severe symptoms like insomnia, seizures and psychotic thoughts. The goal is to create a safe detox experience and minimize psychological and physical distress. Due to the rapid rise in blood pressure that often occurs in GHB withdrawal, medical professionals might also administer blood pressure medication to keep the person safe.
With something as serious as GHB withdrawal, the symptoms can be unpredictable and life-threatening. It’s critical not to attempt a detox program at home or with any program that doesn’t have licensed addiction specialists prepared to deal with the stages of withdrawal and keep a patient comfortable, healthy and safe.
Once the additional detox period is over, the patient can address the psychological addiction and the root causes of drug use. Individuals crave the good feelings associated with GHB use, and it can be tempting to slip back into using drugs when life stressors arise. Sustaining long-term recovery involves creating more awareness of a person’s mental states and behaviors, understanding what situations and people trigger cravings to use and coming up with coping mechanisms that can be put in place to prevent continued drug use.
Any addiction treatment program for GHB should be combined with individual or group therapy. And patients should be examined for co-occurring disorders, such as anxiety, depression or other mood disorders in which medication might be advised. After the initial process of detoxing and rehabilitating, a patient needs to attend support group meetings regularly and get involved with outpatient treatment as needed.
To avoid further temptation, it also helps for the patient to make lifestyle changes. This can include things like avoiding nightclubs, parties and other environments where a person used to take drugs. It can also mean cutting ties with friends and people who are still actively using drugs. It’s also encouraged for a person to cut down on stress levels in life through a variety of techniques and by introducing new activities into a person’s life.
Treatment for GHB Withdrawal
Because GHB withdrawal can cause severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms, close medical supervision and supportive care are required. Admission to a high-quality treatment center such as Windward Way Recovery can offer help and relief to someone suffering from GHB addiction and withdrawal.
If you or your loved one need help, contact Windward Way Recovery today. Our rehab programs can help you focus on changing behaviors around drug use, and increase your odds of avoiding risks like relapse, overdose, and later addiction.