GHB is commonly known as a party and “date-rape” drug. Despite its continued popularity as a drug of abuse, many of its users remain unaware of its dangers. GHB use can be highly damaging to a person’s health and overdoses can be fatal. Read on to learn more about the effects, unapproved uses of GHB and the drug test used to screen for it.
Disclaimer: This post is not an endorsement or recommendation for the use of GHB – in fact, we strongly advise against the recreational abuse of any illegal drugs, GHB or otherwise. We have written this post for informational purposes only, and our goal is solely to inform people about the science behind GHB’s effects, mechanisms, and historical and current uses.
The drug later gained popularity as a bodybuilding supplement during the ‘80s and ‘90s due to its reported anabolic (muscle-building) effects. It also started being used as a recreational drug because of its euphoric effects [R, R, R, R, R].
The effects vary from pleasant euphoria to dangerous or even life-threatening. GHB has a high potential for abuse and has become a major cause of overdose-related emergency room visits worldwide [R, R, R, R].
Because of its high abuse potential, GHB is scheduled as an illegal drug in most western countries. It was prohibited in the US by the FDA in 1990, followed by bans on GHB’s alternative forms in 2000.
Nonetheless, it is still widely sold illegally by drug dealers across the world. “Street names” of GHB include “Fantasy”, “G”, “Gamma Oh”, “Georgia Home Boy”, and “liquid ecstasy” or “liquid X” [R, R, R].
[sh_summary] GHB is an illegal drug with a high potential for abuse. It’s a major cause of overdoses worldwide. [/sh_summary]
GHB occurs naturally in the nervous system and can be found in trace amounts in the brains of humans and other mammals. It is produced from glutamate and is the precursor of GABA, a major inhibitory neurotransmitter [R, R].
Normally, natural (“endogenous”) GHB is not present in high enough amounts to have noticeable psychological effects; it is only when levels are greatly increased (i.e. by ingesting it) that it becomes a psychoactive compound [R].
GHB is also present in trace amounts in many alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, including tonic water and wine. However, its levels are so low that it has no significant psychological or physiological effects [R, R].
GABA is a major neurotransmitter that is involved in a wide range of functions including vigilance, anxiety, muscle control, and memory. However, because GABA is inhibitory, this means that GHB effectively “shuts down” or impairs many of these processes [R, R].
GHB also affects other neurotransmitters, although these mechanisms are still being researched [R]:
- GHB’s “pleasurable” effects – such as relaxation and euphoria – may be caused by increased brain activity in the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which are key parts of the brain networks involved in emotional experiences such as anxiety and pleasure [R].
- Its mood-enhancing and pro-social effects may involve increased levels of oxytocin, commonly involved in social bonding in humans [R].
- Elevated levels of progesterone – a hormone involved in sexual development and behavior – may also be involved in GHB’s pro-social effects [R].
- GHB also reduces the release of the excitatory glutamate in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a deep brain structure that distributes dopamine throughout the midbrain and cerebral cortex. This indirect effect on dopamine activity may account for some of GHB’s “rewarding” and addictive properties [R, R, R, R].
Some also suggest that GHB functions as a natural neurotransmitter with its own set of dedicated GHB receptors in the brain. However, this notion is still controversial with ambiguous evidence [R, R, R, R, R].
[sh_summary] Scientists propose that GHB causes its effects by activating brain areas involved in emotional processing, social behavior, and addiction. [/sh_summary]
Effects of GHB
Note: when we talk about the “positive effects” of GHB, we are referring only to those effects that cause people to abuse this drug recreationally; we are not claiming that these are beneficial for health in any way — nor are we encouraging or endorsing the use of GHB!
The so-called “positive” effects of GHB include:
- Relaxation [R]
- Euphoria and mood-enhancing effects [R, R]
- Pro-social (“empathogenic”) effects [R]
- Increased sexual desire [R, R]
- Decreased inhibitions [R, R]
- Decreased anxiety [R]
- Heightened awareness of one’s body and sensations [R]
- Increased intensity of emotions [R]
A study (randomized controlled trial) in 16 healthy volunteers found that approximately 1.1 – 1.3 grams of liquid GHB produced euphoric, disinhibiting, and energetic effects [R].
However, a different study with 8 healthy volunteers who had never taken GHB before failed to find euphoria or any other positive recreational effects at an even larger dose (approximately 1.5 grams) [R].
Findings such as these demonstrate just how difficult it can be to accurately estimate the size of a “recreational” GHB dose, as this can vary considerably from person to person – and this fact alone is probably a good enough reason to avoid ever abusing this drug!
[sh_summary] People abuse GHB to feel its euphoric and pro-social effects, which are highly unpredictable. [/sh_summary]
GHB comes with a large number of potential negative effects – some of which can even be life-threatening! In fact, the majority of recreational users consistently experience negative effects, though this unfortunately doesn’t always prevent people from continuing to abuse GHB [R].
Some of GHB’s many potential adverse effects include:
- Seizures [R, R, R]
- Respiratory arrest [R]
- Bradycardia (slowed heart rate) and potential cardiac arrest [R, R]
- Confusion and disorientation [R, R]
- Memory loss and amnesia (“blackouts”) [R, R]
- Partial or total loss of consciousness [R, R, R]
- Loss of motor coordination [R, R]
- Uncontrollable muscle contraction/twitching (“myoclonus”) [R]
- Dizziness [R, R]
- Hypothermia [R]
- Convulsions [R]
- Coma [R, R]
[sh_summary]GHB can cause many side effects, including confusion, blackouts and memory loss, seizures, and even coma. [/sh_summary]
Note: The information in this section describes what scientists currently know about the relative effects of different doses of GHB on the brain: it is not a guide to recreational or other non-medical use.
Researchers have estimated that blood levels of about 100mg/L are enough to produce some of the “euphoric” and other “pleasurable” effects, while death from respiratory arrest and other adverse effects become significant risks at levels of about 500mg/L [R, R].
In general, however, it is not possible to say exactly how much of the drug must be taken to reach a given blood concentration, for several major reasons:
- GHB has a “non-linear” dose-response relationship, with blood levels rising disproportionately as dose size increases. In other words, a dose that is twice as large may have effects that are more than twice as strong – and a dose that even a little bit too large can quickly cause major negative effects, and may even result in life-threatening overdose [R, R, R].
- Different people metabolize this drug at different rates – so a dose that is safe for one person may be quite dangerous for another [R]. In other words, its effects are highly unpredictable, and can vary a lot from person to person.
GHB is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and readily crosses the blood-brain barrier. Its effects generally begin within about 30 minutes and reach their peak after approximately 60 minutes [R, R].
GHB highs usually last between 4 and 6 hours [R].
The majority of the drug is eliminated from the body within 4-8 hours by the liver [R].
Because of the history of how it was discovered, as well as because of some of its subtle chemical properties, GHB has occasionally been proposed as a means for treating a handful of medical conditions.
However, keep in mind that these proposals were made by licensed medical doctors and other professional health scientists, and that they only apply to certain very specific medical contexts! In other words, none of these medical uses should be interpreted as “health benefits” of taking this drug.
It’s also important to note that many of these proposals either haven’t fully panned out, or at the very least have only mixed or conflicting evidence to back them up. Furthermore, even if GHB were an effective treatment for some health conditions, it is extremely unlikely to ever be approved by the FDA due to its high potential for abuse.
With that in mind, here is a brief overview of some of the speculative medical uses of GHB that have been proposed since its discovery nearly 50 years ago. GHB has been used for inducing “absence” (petit mal) seizures and as an anesthetic [R]. It has also been used to treat:
- Alcoholism / Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) [R]
- Opioid dependence [R, R]
- Sleep disorders, particularly narcolepsy [R]
Some researchers have proposed that this drug may have medical potential to help treat:
However, several of these uses have only weak or mixed evidence to support them, and GHB has not been widely adopted by medical professionals as a primary treatment for any of these conditions. On the contrary, most of the conditions have much better treatments available that come with much fewer side-effects and other risks.
These medical applications are also highly unlikely to be widely adopted by clinicians or approved by the FDA because of GHB’s high abuse potential [R].
[sh_summary] In the past, researchers were curious about GHB’s medical potential. However, the drug proved to be too dangerous and addictive for medical use. [/sh_summary]
The effects increase with the dose. However, the relatively short half-life of the drug means that patients usually have to wake up during the night to re-administer a second dose, which makes it considerably less useful than other sleep-disorder treatments [R, R].
Sodium oxybate (SO), the sodium salt version of GHB, increases slow-wave sleep duration and reduces the number of night-time awakenings in patients with narcolepsy. By improving sleep quality, SO helps narcolepsy patients function better throughout the day [R, R].
In addition, by helping to stabilize their sleep cycle, SO also alleviates depression symptoms in narcoleptic patients [R].
However, this is most likely just a side-effect of getting better sleep – it doesn’t necessarily mean that GHB actually has “antidepressant” effects in the classical sense.
Chemically speaking, GHB’s effects on the brain are biologically similar to those of alcohol. For this reason, it is occasionally used to treat alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), which can be life-threatening in severe cases of alcoholism [R, R, R, R].
Despite some of this evidence for this specific medical use, GHB’s high potential for abuse makes it very much less than ideal as an alcoholism treatment. In fact, many researchers have argued that it should be categorically avoided in favor of other, safer drugs (such as benzodiazepines) [R, R].
GHB has occasionally been reported to aid in treating fibromyalgia [R]. However, the experimental support for this use is mixed. On one hand, medical GHB (sodium oxybarate) has been reported to improve symptoms of insomnia, fatigue, and chronic pain in patients with fibromyalgia in a few clinical trials [R].
On the other hand, a more recent follow-up study (randomized controlled trial) did not find any significant effect of GHB on pain, mood, or sleep in 25 female fibromyalgia patients [R].
Additionally, concerns about the drug’s high abuse potential mean that it is unlikely to meet the FDA’s strict safety requirements [R].
Some early evidence for this came primarily from a few studies which reported that GHB may alleviate depression in patients suffering from sleep disturbances, which often worsen depression symptoms [R].
However, this evidence is rather weak, as it’s likely that any improvements in these patients were just a side-effect of sleeping better, rather than a direct “antidepressant” effect of GHB itself. Therefore, apart from this indirect effect, it is not clear whether GHB would be suitable for treating depression in general.
In theory, its ability to modulate the GABAergic system could make it a promising candidate, although much more research would be needed to confirm this – and once again, its high potential for abuse would probably prevent the FDA from ever approving this use [R].
However, the evidence for GHB’s usefulness as a bodybuilding supplement is not particularly strong or convincing.
On one hand, some early evidence initially supported the idea that GHB increases the production of growth hormone (GH), a hormone that stimulates growth and regeneration. For example, 14 patients given continuous intravenous GHB injections showed faster healing of burn wounds, possibly due to increased GH levels [R].
Relatedly, relatively small doses of GHB were reported to increase GH levels in 11 out of 12 volunteers. However, this effect was short-lasting (90 – 120 minutes), and it’s not clear that this would actually translate to building muscle [R]. On the other hand, many other studies have failed to find any significant influence of GHB on the levels of GH in humans [R].
GHB also does not appear to increase GH levels in mice. However, it did shift their energy metabolism from using sugars to using fats, which the authors interpreted as a potential fat-burning effect [R].
However, since has only been reported in mice, it definitely cannot be assumed that it would have similar effects in any human users. In light of the weak scientific findings, the short effect duration, and the many potential downsides of GHB use, it would be very ill-advised to use this drug for anabolic purposes [R].
[sh_summary] Bodybuilders abuse GHB because of its supposed GH-increasing effects, which were never properly verified. [/sh_summary]
This drug has both “positive” and negative effects on sexuality and arousal in humans (but again, keep in mind that when we say “positive” effects, we’re just talking about the effects that lead people to abuse this drug recreationally – we’re not talking about any health or other benefits). Recreational users of GHB sometimes report increased libido, sexual arousal, and sexual openness [R, R].
GHB also intensified the brain’s response to erotic stimuli when 32 healthy volunteers viewed erotic pictures [R].
Interestingly, GHB also tends to make the brain regions involved in sexual arousal activate in response to non-erotic pictures of people. This suggests that GHB impairs people’s ability to discriminate between erotic and non-erotic stimuli [R].
This finding is consistent with the fact that recreational GHB users frequently report a variety of negative sexual side-effects or consequences. For example, users are significantly more likely to engage in risky sexual activity when under the influence [R, R].
GHB’s ability to impair sexual decision-making also contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. This is not only because it lowers people’s inhibitions, but also because GHB’s ability to “energize” sexual performance also increases the likelihood of physical injury during prolonged sexual activity, which makes the transmission of diseases much more likely [R, R].
Therefore, while GHB is sometimes claimed to “enhance” sexual activity and desire, it also significantly impairs decision-making, and very often leads to dangerous or unwanted sexual encounters as well as the spread of sexually transmitted diseases [R].
[sh_summary]One of the reasons why GHB is so dangerous is that it impairs decision-making while causing blackouts, which can lead to sexual trauma and STDs. [/sh_summary]
GHB is notorious for its role in “date rape” – also known as Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault (DFSA) – where drugs are unknowingly given to potential victims to make them less capable of avoiding or resisting a sexual assault [R, R, R, R, R, R].
However, some public health researchers have argued that GHB’s reputation as a “date-rape” drug may be unwarranted [R].
One argument is that many studies on date rape do not account for voluntary drug consumption, therefore biasing the crime statistics. For example, several large-scale studies have found that the majority of reported date rapes occur as a result of voluntary intoxication with alcohol and other drugs [R, R, R].
In fact, only 0.2 – 4.4% of reported sexual assaults have involved the use of GHB [R].
In light of findings such as these, some researchers have argued that GHB’s reputation as a “date-rape drug” may be greatly exaggerated due to sensationalism in the media [R].
Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the fact that there is some controversy about the exact extent of GHB’s role in date rape does not make it any less dangerous – nor should it be taken as a reason to be any less careful or vigilant about what you’re drinking or ingesting when you’re out.
While GHB has become widely associated with sexual assault, it may actually be more commonly used to incapacitate or impair potential victims of “acquisitive crimes” such as theft, burglary, and robbery [R].
For example, one study found that out of 408 cases of unintentional GHB intake, only 6.5% of victims suffered from sexual assault while 21.7% endured an acquisitive crime [R].
Similarly, a related study of 60 GHB users found that people who used GHB voluntarily were also two and a half times more likely to be the victim of an acquisitive crime than they were to be the victim of a sexual assault [R].
Because GHB overdoses are so dangerous – and because GHB is sometimes deliberately given to other people in order to commit crimes against them – medical and law-enforcement professionals alike have developed a variety of tests that they can use to try to determine if a person has been “dosed” with GHB.
GHB levels are relatively easy to assess in drink samples. However, the fact that many common drinks – such as wine and tonic water – naturally contain some amount of GHB can make it difficult to determine for sure whether a drink was intentionally spiked by someone [R, R].
Furthermore, the rapid metabolism of GHB in the body presents several additional challenges for forensic testing [R].
For example, because GHB is naturally present in very small amounts in the brain, it can sometimes be hard for biological tests to tell the difference between GHB made in the body and externally-administered GHB – especially if the person didn’t get tested right away [R, R, R].
Forensic investigation of GHB use is also made difficult by the fact that it often causes memory loss and unconsciousness. This means that victims may not become aware that they have been dosed until after the drug has already completely passed out of their body [R].
Together, all of these complicating factors can sometimes make it difficult for medical and forensic specialists to detect GHB consumption [R].
[sh_summary] GHB is naturally found in trace amounts in the human body as well as in some drinks, which can make proper drug identification tricky. [/sh_summary]
Another major problem is that most of these tests aren’t sensitive enough to detect a single GHB exposure, such as in cases of date rape [R].
Because of the many limitations of current screening techniques, researchers are actively developing alternative methods for detecting GHB exposure. However, many of these new methods are still in the early stages of development and are not yet efficient or reliable enough for widespread use [R, R, R].
[sh_summary] GHB can be identified in bodily fluids like saliva, but tests need to be carried out quickly after exposure since the body rapidily eliminates GHB. [/sh_summary]
Xyrem (sodium oxybarate) is an alternative form of GHB, which has occasionally been used by medical doctors to treat narcolepsy and cataplexy [R].
GHB also has a number of precursor drugs, such as gamma-butyrolactone (GBL) and 1,4-butanediol (BD). GBL and BD are “prodrugs” of GHB, meaning that they are converted to active GHB in the body after ingestion [R, R, R, R].
Once ingested, GBL and BD are converted into GHB within minutes [R].
Because of the prevalence of these precursor drugs, recreational users often don’t know what they are taking.
A 2006 analysis of drugs seized by the police found that only 38% of the drugs being sold as GHB on the street were genuine; the other 62% were actually GBL. This suggests that these drugs are commonly misidentified or misrepresented by sellers or users [R].
[sh_summary] Analysis show that GHB sold on the street usually contains a different chemical called GBL. [/sh_summary]
A study in baboons found that GBL and BD are absorbed more quickly than regular GHB. This causes blood levels to spike higher and faster compared to when regular GHB is taken on its own [R].
This means that it may be more difficult to predict the effects of these drugs and that they might also be more likely to cause accidental overdoses. GBL and BD also appear to cause behavioral impairments at relatively smaller doses than regular GHB, suggesting a higher likelihood of negative effects when taken “recreationally” [R].
On the other hand, mice develop tolerance more slowly for GBL or BD than for regular GHB, which may slightly decrease the likelihood of developing a dependence on these versions of the drug [R].
Nonetheless, again we should stress that this does not in any way make these drugs “safe” – the differences are relatively minor, and the dangers and long-term risks of abusing them are essentially the same.
[sh_summary] GBL and other compounds similar to it are likely as dangerous, addictive, and risky as GHB. [/sh_summary]
GHB is an illegal drug with a high potential for abuse. It became widely known as a “date rape drug.” It can impair decision-making, cause mild euphoria, blackouts, and confusion.
Aside from its abuse at clubs and parties, GHB made its way into the bodybuilding scene in the 90s. However, its alleged GH-raising and anabolic effects were never properly proven.
The risks and side effects of GHB are often seriously downplayed. GHB can also lead to seizures and coma and is a major cause of overdose-related ER visits worldwide.
Drugs tests can pick up GHB in drinks and bodily fluids. However, currently-available tests are not specific enough and they need to be performed shortly after exposure.
Anyone who suspects that they have been dosed with GHB should seek medical care as soon as possible.