Beta receptors are found on cells of the heart muscles, smooth muscles, airways, arteries, kidneys, and other tissues that are part of the sympathetic nervous system and lead to stress responses, especially when they are stimulated by epinephrine (adrenaline). Beta blockers interfere with the binding to the receptor of epinephrine and other stress hormones, and weaken the effects of stress hormones.
Because they promote lower heart rates and reduce tremors, beta blockers have been used in professional sports where high accuracy is required, including archery, shooting, golf and snooker. Beta blockers are banned by the International Olympic Committee. In the 2008 Summer Olympics, 50-metre pistol silver medalist and 10-metre air pistol bronze medalist Kim Jong-su tested positive for propranolol and was stripped of his medals.
A 2007 study revealed diuretics and beta blockers used for hypertension increase a patient's risk of developing diabetes mellitus, while ACE inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor antagonists (angiotensin receptor blockers) actually decrease the risk of diabetes. Clinical guidelines in Great Britain, but not in the United States, call for avoiding diuretics and beta blockers as first-line treatment of hypertension due to the risk of diabetes.
Beta blockers should not be used as a first-line treatment in the acute setting for cocaine-induced acute coronary syndrome (CIACS). No recent studies have been identified that show the benefit of beta blockers in reducing coronary vasospasm, or coronary vascular resistance, in patients with CIACS. In the multiple case studies identified, the use of beta blockers in CIACS resulted in detrimental outcomes, and the discontinuation of beta blockers used in the acute setting led to improvement in clinical course. The guidelines by the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association also support this idea, and recommend against the use of beta blockers in cocaine-induced ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (MI) because of the risk of coronary vasospasm. Though, in general, beta blockers improve mortality in patients who have suffered MI, it is unclear whether patients with CIACS will benefit from this mortality reduction because no studies assess the use of beta blockers in the long term, and because cocaine users may be prone to continue to abuse the substance, thus complicating the effect of drug therapy. Contrast media are not contraindicated in patients receiving beta blockers.
Antianginal effects result from negative chronotropic and inotropic effects, which decrease cardiac workload and oxygen demand. Negative chronotropic properties of beta blockers allow the lifesaving property of heart rate control. Beta blockers are readily titrated to optimal rate control in many pathologic states.
Also referred to as intrinsic sympathomimetic effect, this term is used particularly with beta blockers that can show both agonism and antagonism at a given beta receptor, depending on the concentration of the agent (beta blocker) and the concentration of the antagonized agent (usually an endogenous compound, such as norepinephrine). See partial agonist for a more general description.
Beta blockers, due to their antagonism at beta-1 adrenergic receptors, inhibit both the synthesis of new melatonin and its secretion by the pineal gland. The neuropsychiatric side effects of some beta blockers (e.g. sleep disruption, insomnia) may be due to this effect.