“Benzodiazepine” is not a word that is particularly common in the news. It has too many syllables and seems too scientific to be threatening. But as America becomes the most heavily medicated nation in the world, we are all becoming increasingly familiar with benzodiazepines — we just know them by their brand names. Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, Rohypnol, and Ativan are all names that have popped up in the news over the years, touted as both miracle cures for psychiatric ailments and as dangerous drugs responsible for rising body counts.
“Benzos,” as they are colloquially known today, are prescribed by doctors when patients are reporting problems with sleep and/or anxiety. They are depressant drugs that slow down the central nervous system to ease feelings of anxiousness and nervousness. They are designed to help patients relax, but are only meant for short-term use.
Trouble with Long-Term Usage
The problems with benzos occur as doctors continue to prescribe the drug over long periods of time, leading to tolerance, the potential of dependency, addiction and extremely difficult withdrawal symptoms to manage. The three most common types of benzos include long, intermediate and fast-acting; with the faster acting drugs creating the strongest chance for addiction.
Taken over a long period of time to help with sleep or anxiety, individuals begin to rely on the drug for daily functioning and become hopelessly dependent on it.
“When doctors prescribe benzos for nightly sleep, tolerance develops quickly,” said Dr. Stewart Shipko, a Pasadena, CA psychiatrist, in a Huffington Post article. “Routine sleep is the worst possible use for benzos. That first night it works great. People think ‘Miracle drug!’“ a full night’s sleep with no hangover. Already by the end of the first week, they’re no longer getting that quality. So the dose begins to rise, say, from .5 milligrams, which is easily stopped, to 2 milligrams, which is not.”
Long-term usage of benzodiazepines has even been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, according to new research.
Some of the most common signs and symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction are:
- Sleep problems
- Memory impairment
- Personality changes
- Social deterioration
- Impaired cognitive abilities
- Chronic sweating
- Hand tremors
- Increased anxiety or tension
- Panic attacks
- Craving for or inability to cope without benzos
- Neglecting relationships
The Evolution of Benzodiazepines
Polish-American chemist, Leo Sternbach, is credited with discovering benzodiazepines in the late 1950’s, while working for Hoffman La Roche in Nutley, NJ. It was originally found to have hypnotic and muscle relaxant effects. The first marketed benzo was called Librium, (which was launched in the United Kingdom in 1960) and was followed by diazepam (generic version of Valium) in 1963.
Less than 20 years later, Valium had become one of the most successful prescription drugs of all time, as it was the first drug to top $100 million in sales. By the late 1970’s, the drug’s addictive properties were well documented, creating concern about a nation of addicted women, as women were the primary marketing targets of Valium and other benzodiazepines. In 1976, Phizer patented alprazolam (generic name for Xanax), which was a stronger and faster acting version of Valium. Just one milligram of Xanax equaled the potency of 20 milligrams of Valium.
By 1983, there were 17 benzodiazepines on the market and it was a worldwide industry worth $3 billion. There are now over 30 different types of benzodiazepines available for prescription, and the market has continued to explode in revenue and profitability.4 Xanax is still the world’s most popular prescription drug, and U.S. prescriptions grow by 12 percent annually.
Scope of U.S. Addiction, Dependency and Abuse
U.S. prescriptions for Xanax rose 17 percent from 2006 – 2010, to nearly 94 million written annually. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), rehab visits for benzodiazepines tripled between 1998 and 2008. Users have shown a high tendency to gain strong dependencies to these drugs and experience extreme difficulty in breaking them.
Unlike many other prescription drugs, dependency to benzodiazepines occurs even while using pills exactly as prescribed by doctors. Typical users of this drug are usually functioning adults who are not in danger of dramatically destroying their lives by continued use. This frequently serves as justification to keep using the pills, even as they may not be curing the initial problems they were prescribed for.
The fact is that they don’t address the cause of anxiety and only treat the symptoms. They have been reported to restrict the formation of new memories and create a problematic cycle of dependency: feel anxiety, take pills, feel better. All this does is create a false paradigm of helplessness against anxiety.
Part of the issue is that alternative ways of treating anxiety are not always explored because primary physicians only meet with patients for 15 minutes per session. How is a doctor supposed to review all of the risks and benefits associated with a drug and assess whether their patient is an ideal candidate for usage? Often times, writing a prescription is the easiest and most immediately effective treatment option.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), rehab visits for benzodiazepines tripled between 1998 and 2008.
Individuals seeking to cease usage of benzodiazepines often experience more difficulty than people trying to break heroin addictions. People who have been responsibly using the drug for multiple years will have to taper off of the drug and may experience withdrawal symptoms for months or even years before finally being free.
A Dangerous Cocktail Drug
It is not uncommon for a person to mix benzos with alcohol or other drugs either recreationally or in an attempt to self-medicate. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Whitney Houston are two well-known entertainers who met untimely deaths by mixing benzos with other narcotics. Mixing any drug with another is problematic and potentially fatal. Here’s a breakdown of what happens when mixing benzodiazepines with other specific drugs.
- Mixing opiates with benzodiazepines strengthens the effects of both drugs; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the combination of the two contribute to approximately 30 percent of all opioid-related deaths.
- Mixing alcohol and benzos, both being depressants, have a cumulative effect on the nervous system and may cause organs to shut down.
- With benzos acting as depressants and amphetamines acting as stimulants, many users mix the two to counteract the impact of one drug or the other. This is unwise and can lead to an overdose.
Learn More About Benzodiazepines and Addiction Rehab
Do you want to learn more about addiction to benzos? If so, then follow this link to download Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches’ free informational ebook, Understanding Addiction to Benzodiazepines. In it you will find information on the physiological and mental effects of benzo addiction, as well as recommendations for selecting a detox and recovery program for yourself or for someone close to you who is struggling with addiction.