Even though doctors prescribe benzodiazepines to help relieve stress and anxiety, this group of drugs, also known as “benzos,” and “tranquilizers,” can have devastating effects on the brain and body. Taking benzodiazepines recreationally or in larger than intended doses can cause:
- Mental confusion
- Memory issues
- Slurred speech
Even when used as prescribed, benzodiazepines can lead to physical dependence and addiction. Despite these risks, benzodiazepines like Xanax are some of the most prescribed psychiatric medicines in America. Luckily, understanding the effects of benzodiazepines may help reduce the use of these drugs which can help combat prescription drug abuse and addiction.
What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are a type of sedative prescribed by doctors for short-term use, ranging anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks. Known for their ability to relax and calm users, benzos are frequently used to treat:
- Severe anxiety. When used to treat anxiety, benzodiazepines are expected to provide short-term relief and should not be used for a long period of time.
- Panic disorders. Doctors may also prescribe benzodiazepines to individuals who do not respond well to antidepressants.
- Sleeping. Insomniacs or people who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep may be prescribed benzodiazepines for a short period of time. However, doctors usually only prescribe benzodiazepines for individuals dealing with severe or debilitating insomnia.
- Epilepsy, a neurological disorder that causes sudden recurrent convulsions and loss of consciousness, can be helped by benzodiazepines.
- Acute alcohol withdrawal. When quitting alcohol, individuals may experience anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. Behavioral health experts may prescribe benzodiazepines to help ease the effects of withdrawal symptoms.
Although there are more than a dozen prescription benzodiazepines, they fall into 2 categories:
- Hypnotics, which are shorter-acting benzodiazepines. Usually, doctors prescribe these drugs to treat sleeping problems such as insomnia.
- Anxiolytics, or longer-acting benzodiazepines. Medical professionals usually prescribe these drugs for anxiety-related conditions.
In addition to Xanax, some of the most commonly used benzodiazepines include:
- Klonopin, also known as clonazepam
- Valium, also called diazepam
- Restoril, or temazepam
- Librium, which is also called chlordiazepoxide
- Halcion, also known as triazolam
- Dalmane, or flurazepam
- Ativan, also known as lorazepam
How Do Benzodiazepines Work in the Brain?
Benzodiazepines “tranquilize” or “sedate” users by slowing down activity in the central nervous system. They do this by increasing the natural effect of a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA inhibits, or blocks, certain brain signals, which decreases activity in the central nervous system. In other words, GABA’s primary function is to slow things down in the brain and body.
GABA reduces activity in areas of the brain responsible for:
- Rational thought
- Essential functions such as breathing
But GABA doesn’t just decrease activity in these parts of the brain. GABA produces a calming effect on these parts of the brain. When users take benzodiazepines they are better able to:
- Control and calm racing thoughts
- Successfully manage anxious emotions
- Effectively regulate rapid, shallow breaths
Benzodiazepines’ ability to reduce anxiety and evoke relaxation can make users feel:
Unfortunately, benzodiazepines are highly addictive and are most effective when used for a short period of time. In fact, many of these drugs stop working when they’re consistently used for more than a few months. When this happens, the brain, which has grown accustomed to the presence of benzodiazepines, may no longer produce GABA on its own, leaving users feeling more anxious, stressed, and fearful than before. At the same time, all the nerves and neurons that have been suppressed by the drug are rekindled, which typically triggers:
- An elevated heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Panic attacks
- Mood swings
Long-Term Effects of Benzodiazepines On The Brain
Because benzodiazepines aren’t meant for long-term use, prolonged use can have lasting effects on the brain. Research shows that misusing benzos can worsen:
- Alzheimer’s. A study published in the journal BMJ showed a link between benzodiazepine use and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. The data revealed that people taking benzodiazepines for 3 to 6 months showed a 32% increased risk of developing the disease. A Harvard Health report showed that individuals using these drugs for more than 6 months had an 84% increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Cognitive impairment. Long-term benzodiazepine use can cause ataxia, or impaired motor coordination, and anterograde amnesia, which decreases your ability to retain new information. In addition to that, a meta-analysis of studies discovered that long-term use of Valium and other benzodiazepines contributed to substantial cognitive decline that did not improve after stopping using the drugs for 3 months.
- Cognitive Decline. Benzodiazepines can also interfere with your brain’s processing speed. This means that using these drugs can cause you to take a longer time to complete simple tasks immediately after learning them. You may also have trouble speaking as well as understanding and comprehending language.
How Benzodiazepines Affect Parts Of The Body
Benzodiazepines can affect the body just as much as they affect the brain. As sedatives, benzos slow down vital functions in the body that can negatively impact the:
- Heart. Benzodiazepines slow down users’ heart and breath rate. Prolonged and excessive use can slow the heart so much that it stops working. These drugs can also increase the risk of blood clots, which can cause a number of cardiovascular issues.
- Lungs. Benzodiazepines also slow down users’ breathing. As such, severe benzodiazepine use can lead to hypoxia, a condition in which there isn’t enough oxygen in the tissues and organs to sustain vital body functions.
- Liver. The liver metabolizes benzodiazepines. Abusing benzodiazepines can cause damage to liver tissue. These drugs can also cause the liver to dysfunction, which if left untreated, can eventually lead to liver failure.
Other long-term effects of benzodiazepine use can include:
- Weak pulse
- Chronic fatigue
- Muscle weakness
- Suicidal thoughts
- Mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression
Helping You Overcome Addiction
Benzodiazepines can be tricky substances to understand. They’re legal and medicinal, but highly addictive and potentially dangerous. The good news is that our treatment program for prescription drugs can help you overcome an addiction to benzodiazepines. You can live a thriving, successful life without prescription drugs.
We can help you develop and maintain that life. Contact a member of our team today if you’re ready to begin or continue your sobriety journey at a treatment center that truly cares about your recovery.