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What are Sympathomimetics?

By S. Gadd
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The general definition for sympathomimetics is a substance that imitates the activated sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is a part of the autonomic nervous system, or the nervous system that is not under conscious control. This part of the autonomic nervous system is activated in response to danger and prepares the body to react to the dangerous situation. This is also known as the “fight or flight” response.

Basically, the sympathetic response temporarily shuts down processes that might slow a person down, such as food digestion or urine production. This response also speeds up processes that allow for bursts of energy, such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased blood to the brain, and rapid glycogen hydrolysis for muscle energy. In addition, the bronchial tubes will become dilated, or widened, in preparation for a greater oxygen requirement.

The term sympathomimetics usually refers to substances used as sympathomimetic drugs. Medical use of sympathomimetics is usually limited to serious or life-threatening conditions, such as treatment for a heart attack, dangerously low blood pressure, hemorrhagic shock, or a severe asthma attack resulting in the inability to breathe. They may also be used to prevent the onset of premature labor.

Catecholamines are the most common group of sympathomimetics, and include epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Epinephrine, or adrenaline, is a hormone produced naturally by the body in response to fear or strong anger and is a frequently used sympathomimetic drug under the emergency conditions described above. A natural intermediate in the body during epinephrine synthesis is dopamine, a catecholamine best known for its effects on the brain. Dopamine can be used medically to help relieve some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Sympathomimetics can also be used as appetite suppressants for the treatment of people who are morbidly obese. Because the appetite-suppressing effects of sympathomimetics usually last for just a few weeks, they are only effective as a short-term solution. Other examples of sympathomimetics are illegal stimulant drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.

The long-term use of sympathomimetics can be very dangerous. In addition to their generally addictive nature, their strong stimulatory effects on the nervous system can result in high blood pressure, a dangerously high heart rate, and an abnormal heart rhythm, or cardiac arrhythmia. For these reasons, these types of drugs are only used in the short term and usually only under emergency conditions. In addition, they should be used only under constant medical supervision.

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Discussion Comments
By indemnifyme — On Jun 27, 2011

@KaBoom - I don't quite understand why someone would use sympathomimetics recreationally either. I kind of don't even understand why someone would use them for weight loss. I know people get really desperate to lose weight but it's not worth it at the expense of their overall health.

I'm actually a little surprised people don't abuse these kind of drugs for the performance enhancing aspect. I would imagine that sympathomimetic bronchodilators could help a runner achieve a faster time.

By KaBoom — On Jun 25, 2011

Sympathomimetics sounds pretty dangerous so I think it's a good thing their medical use is limited. Reading about sympathomimetic effects makes me wonder why anyone would take them recreationally.

Then again I've always known cocaine was dangerous but I was not aware it was a sympathomimetic. I think it's really interesting though how a lot of illegal drugs have a legal counterpart with legitimate medical uses.

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