People tend to use benzodiazepines because they work, plain and simple. A group of prescription sedatives, benzodiazepines are classified as Schedule IV in the Controlled Substances Act and are most commonly prescribed to treat anxiety, namely under the brand names Xanax, Ativan, and Valium.1
They work on the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) to calm nerve impulses, which also helps calm anxiety. The state of wellbeing that results quickly creates loyal fans of its users—for many, this is where the trouble can begin.
Most people understand that they should take a prescription medication as instructed, yet perhaps fewer fully understand the implications of deviating from their prescription. This is particularly dangerous with benzos, since their chemical composition and action in the body make them especially easy to abuse.
These 5 alarming facts about benzo addiction may surprise you.
1. Becoming Addicted is Shockingly Easy
Researchers discovered that when you take a benzo, your dopamine levels surge, which floods your brain with the feel-good neurotransmitter.2 This sudden, strong wave of pleasure is understandably rewarding and, to some, can prove irresistible.
In fact, researchers found that the addictive power of benzos was similar to that of opioids, cannabinoids, and GHB – all substances with exceptionally strong addictive qualities. They believe that as benzos accumulate in the body, they actually alter the structure and function of certain receptors in the brain that make them more susceptible to excitable surges from other neurotransmitters, and further increase and intensify dopamine rushes.2
All of these chemical actions add up to a high many people do not wish to give up, and the progression from use to abuse to addiction can occur shockingly quickly.
On average, tolerance can develop after just 6 months of use, though it is possible to become physically dependent sooner. It’s estimated that at least 44% of users eventually become dependent on benzos.3
Researchers found that the addictive power of benzos was similar to that of opioids, cannabinoids, and GHB.
2. Quitting is Devastatingly Difficult
Once your body has become dependent on the benzo, simply deciding to quit is not so simple at all. First, completely stopping the medication is never advised, and will likely result in severe withdrawal symptoms, including:4
And for those on high doses of the medication, withdrawal has led to seizures and psychosis.
What’s more, even if you’ve only taken a benzodiazepine at low doses as prescribed, you may still experience very difficult withdrawal symptoms. 5 It is this experience that typically prevents people from trying to quit benzos again.
However, for those who determine to quit, following closely a doctor’s recommended guidelines for slowly weaning off the benzo was most effective — if still painful.
For those on high doses of the medication, withdrawal has led to seizures and psychosis.
3. Using Often Creates Cognitive Impairment
As increasing numbers of people were prescribed benzos—and stayed on them for years, despite their recommended short-term application—doctors noticed a worrying trend: cognitive impairment in the form of forgetting things they previously knew or could easily recall, and forgetting how to perform tasks they once knew.
So researchers explored the connection between these impairments and benzodiazepine use and found consistent links between doses of the medication and cognitive deficiencies.Especially telling was the fact that study participants who were both older and younger than age 60 experienced the same impairment as a result of benzo use, thus reducing the alternative explanation that the declines were due to natural aging in the older demographic.6
Still, the cognitive impairment studied here fell short of dementia. But this is not always the case…
4. Developing Alzheimer’s Disease Is Far More Likely
As numbers of long-term-use benzodiazepine prescriptions for the elderly sharply rose (31.4% of people ages 65-80 prescribed vs. 14.7% of people, ages 18-35),7 so too did a disturbing trend: Alzheimer’s Disease.8
The more a person took benzos, the higher the risk for developing the neurodegenerative disease.
In a study that considered length of benzo use (at least 5 years) and corrected for other variables including health and demographics, as well as when each person was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in relation to their benzo use, the evidence was clear: long-term benzo use is positively associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. And the more a person took benzos, the higher the risk for developing the neurodegenerative disease—84% higher for those who took the drug for 6 months or longer.
The researchers of the study concluded that “unwarranted long-term use of these drugs should be considered as a public health concern.”8
5. Dying Early Is a Tragic Possibility
Not only must people considering beginning a benzodiazepine regimen weigh risks such as addiction, difficult withdrawal, cognitive impairments and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, they must also understand that benzo use could, in fact, kill them.
Benzodiazepines were associated with greatest number of early deaths among all the prescription medications tested.
More than an alarmist warning, this last fact is supported by extensive research. In a study that examined more than 100,000 participants’ medical records, researchers discovered that benzodiazepines were associated with greatest number of early deaths among all the prescription medications tested.9
The study’s results state the statistically significant chances of early death double with the prescription of a benzodiazepine. 9 These findings remained significant and reflected a dose-response pattern after a 12-month follow-up with participants.
Given the serious concerns around benzos, it is important to carefully consider all of your health needs, as well as short- and long-term goals, with a licensed treatment professional.
- Center for Substance Abuse Research. (2013). Benzodiazepines.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Well-Known Mechanism Underlies Benzodiazepines’ Addictive Properties.
- Minaya, O., Fresan, A., Cortes-Lopez, J.L., Nanni, R., and Ugalde, O. (2011). The Benzodiazepine Dependence Questionnaire (BDEPQ): validity and reliability in Mexican psychiatric patients. Addictive Behaviors, 36(8), 874-77.
- Petursson, H. (1994). The benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. Addiction, 89(11), 1455-1459.
- Liebrenz, M., Gehring, M.T., Buadze, A., Caflisch, C. (2015). High-dose benzodiazepine dependence: a qualitative study of patients’ perception on cessation and withdrawal. BioMed Central Psychiatry, 15(116).
- Tannenbaum, C., Paquette, A., Hilmer, S., Holroyd-Leduc, J., Carnahan, R., (2012). A systematic review of amnestic and non-amnestic mild cognitive impairment induced by anticholinergic, antihistamine, GABAergic and opioid drugs. Drugs and Aging, 29(8), 639-658.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (2014). Despite Risks, Benzodiazepine Use Highest in Older People.
- Billioti de Gage, S., Moride, Y., Ducruet, T., et al. (2014). Benzodiazepine use and risk of Alzheimer’s disease: case-control study. The BMJ, 349(5205).
- Weich, S., Pearce, H.L., Croft, P., Singh, S., Crome, I., Bashford, J., Frisher, M. (2014). Effects of anxiolytic and hypnotic drug prescriptions on mortality hazards: retrospective cohort study. The BMJ, 348(1996).