A dangerous substance from the 1960s is making a comeback in the United States.
Phenibut, a central nervous system depressant with anxiolytic effects, used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and other conditions was developed in the Soviet Union for medical use in the 1960s. It is still used in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Latvia to treat anxiety and insomnia.
In the United States, phenibut is legal to possess, but not approved as a licensed pharmaceutical drug by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is also not approved for clinical use in many European countries, but it is widely sold on the internet as a dietary supplement. Used recreationally, it can produce euphoria, lead to addiction, and cause withdrawal symptoms.
“Phenibut use and misuse can result in sedation, respiratory depression, and reduced levels of consciousness, as well as withdrawal symptoms including anxiety, agitation, and acute psychosis,” warned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
A new study led by Janessa Graves, an associate professor at Washington State University, reviewed calls to US poison control centers and found that an increasing number of Americans may be having serious reactions after taking phenibut. In the ten-year period between 2009 and 2019, there were just 1,320 calls related to phenibut. However, there was a sharp increase in calls beginning in 2015, researchers found—going from just a few calls each year to between 300 and 400 in 2018 and 2019.
“This is reason for concern,” Graves told Health Day. “[Phenibut] is easily accessible, and it may be becoming more popular.” Overall, 80 people fell into a coma and three died. Often, they had taken other substances as well, but even in cases where only phenibut was used, 10 percent resulted in serious harm — including one death.
Based on internet search trends, public interest in phenibut has remained fairly stable in the past several years, Pat Aussem of the nonprofit Partnership to End Addiction told Health Day. “That said,” she added, “the sharp rise in calls to poison control centers is concerning, and may be attributable to people searching for and using anti-anxiety supplements without knowing their safety profiles.”
Consumers should not automatically assume that dietary supplements are safe. Aussem says phenibut would be particularly dangerous in combination with other substances that depress the central nervous system — including alcohol, opioids, or benzodiazepines.
The current pandemic may also be a contributing factor. “In this age of COVID-19,” Aussem told Health Day, “many people are trying to cope with anxiety and may wish to find a ‘natural’ product to alleviate their symptoms.” But, she said, “talking to a healthcare provider about their concerns is the safest approach.”
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