04 Jun Long Term Health Effects of Benzo Addiction
For years now, public health officials have been decrying the mounting catastrophe, the ticking time bomb, that is substance abuse and addiction within this country. Despite their warnings, this disease has been running rampant, with abuse rates and drug fatalities increasing in nearly every town, city, and state, from the east coast to the west. Whether it is cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, benzos, opioids, hallucinogens, uppers, or downers, the particular drug of choice is inconsequential when it comes to the universal truth. Addiction poses not only serious health issues but also has grave ramifications on society at large, quite often leading to broken families, torn communities, wasted potential, and dead bodies.
Democrats and Republicans have both attempted to tackle the issue of substance abuse addiction, although there are solid arguments to be made that both only made the matter worse. Lately, experts on both sides of the aisle seem to have come to a consensus that, in many ways, the “War on drugs,” has been poorly handled and improperly focused. The contention now stands that substance abuse is something that must be addressed at a root level and that solutions have to be found that both treat the addict and focus on ways to help prevent people from falling into addiction.
A question that we must ask is, “How should we as a society treat pain, depression, hurt, or loss?” This requires address since, for years, our answer to that question has been to prescribe a pill. Can’t sleep? Take an Ambien. Have trouble paying attention? Pop an Adderall. Are you in pain? There’s always Vicodin. Or Percocet if it’s really bad. Do you deal with anxiety? Try Xanax. No one disputes that these prescription drugs are very effective at treating these issues and in many cases are vital for some Americans to function.
Unfortunately, for a select portion of the population, the drugs are too effective, too potent; they begin to rely on them, lean on them as a form of coping mechanism, until, eventually they are entirely dependent on them to function at all. Because of this overprescribing, pill mill mindset, many fall into the trap of substance abuse unknowingly. They treat the drug in an almost casual manner or use it even if the situation might not call for it. For example, treating a headache with their extra Vicodin in the medicine cabinet, when a simple Tylenol would likely do the trick. This naivete starts with the prescription. While their doctor may mention that the drug is addictive, many fail to highlight just how addictive they can be, and how quickly addiction can form.
One such substance that many neglect to mention when discussing the drug epidemic are benzodiazepines. Although not responsible for as many overdoses as narcotics such as heroin, according to the ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine), last year alone, approximately 9,000 women and men died from overdosing on benzos. While this number is staggering, what it does not illustrate is the severe danger posed when benzos are added to supplement other drugs. The CDC found that one in three overdoses found benzos in the person’s system.
In many cases, such as that of Prince, Robin Williams, and Whitney Houston, although not the primary cause of death, medical experts agreed that the high amounts of benzos in the system amplified the other drug’s effects and led to their eventual demise. And this problem is only growing worse. Over the past decade, benzo overdoses have increased by 400%, and yet, patients have still prescribed benzos, seemingly willy-nilly, in ever-growing amounts. Therefore, if you, or someone in your family, are prescribed Benzos, be sure to do your research and know what it is you are putting into your body. There are serious and possibly deadly consequences of benzodiazepine abuse, and it is crucial that you are aware of the possible benzo addiction health effects that are long-term.
What are Benzodiazepines?
Generally categorized as an anti-depressant or an anti-anxiety medication, benzos stimulate the brain’s GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors, the neurotransmitters that affect our ability to sleep, our moods, pain sensitivity and anxiety levels. Benzos increase the strength of the reaction between the brain and GABA, which spreads from the brain into the CNS (central nervous system), quashing cell and nerve activity and altering the brain’s perception of fear or anxiety.
The most common of benzos is alprazolam, but you know it as Xanax. While Xanax is the most popular prescribed of the benzo family, there are dozens of other similar medications such as Valium (diazepam), Klonipan (clonazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), amongst others. The ASAM found that Benzos are the fourth most commonly prescribed drug in the United States. As you might imagine, these prescription numbers are in the tens of millions per year. And this is not merely an American problem; the popularity of benzos has not in any way been quarantined or contained by our oceans or borders. Instead, they have spread to Europe, and Asia, and to a lesser extent, Africa, and South America.
The differences between the various benzos are marginal, with minor discrepancies in the period of effects, the potency of effects, and time for the drug to kick in. They are regularly prescribed to those Americans who deal with phobias, social anxiety disorders, panic disorders, depression, or any other form of anxiety on a daily basis. Although it varies from person to person, Benzos direct effects- calm, anxiety relief, drowsiness- can be felt for roughly four to eight hours. If you are prescribed some form of benzo to deal with anxiety, then you should know that repeated use can quickly lead to tolerance, dependence and then addiction.
Long-Term Effects of Benzo Addiction
- A link to Alzheimer’s – In 2016, a joint Canadian and French study out of the University of Quebec, sought to “Investigate the relationship between the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and exposure to benzodiazepines started at least five years before, considering both the dose-response relation and prodromes (anxiety, depression, insomnia) possibly linked with treatment.” The study found, “Benzodiazepine use is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The stronger association observed for long-term exposures reinforces the suspicion of a possible direct association, even if benzodiazepine use might also be an early marker of a condition associated with an increased risk of dementia. Unwarranted long-term use of these drugs should be considered as a public health concern.” They discovered that Alzheimer’s disease increased in nearly 1 out of every three patients who had used benzos regularly for three to six months. This percentage shot up to 80% of participants who had used benzos for more than six months.
- Amnesia – Because of the effects of benzodiazepines on the brains and one’s emotions, long-term addiction leads to extreme forgetfulness. This is two-fold. First, the damage being done to the brain’s short-term and long-term memory centers, combined with the mind-numbing haze a benzo can cast over someone’s mind. Forgetfulness is quite a common symptom of long-term benzo addiction, which in turn leads to a person struggling with their other responsibilities of life such as their job, family, or other societal obligations.
- Brain Damage – Long-term benzo addiction can hamper the brain’s ability to communicate with the central nervous system effectively. Because of this, addicts see diminishments incoordination, speech, motivation, concentration, and balance. Doctors agree that benzo addiction, especially when paired with heavy drinking or other substances, takes a severe toll on the brains cells in every region of the brain. Because addiction is a growing thing, addicts take benzos in ever larger and more frequent doses. A large number of addicts will also regularly amplify the feelings of Benzos by supplementing their dose with heavy drinking. As a result, the damage done to the brain is not linear, it ramps up exponentially, rewiring the brain’s neural pathways and fundamentally altering the way the brain functions. This diminishment of neural pathways not only hampers the way a person can process the constant stream of information the brain has to handle daily but also impacts reasoning skills. This quite often leads to bad decision making and increased risk-taking.
- Dependence – While this should be quite obvious, long-term use and abuse of benzos lead to both bodily and mental addiction. As tolerance develops and grows, a benzos efficacy diminishes, and thus more has to be taken to receive the same effect or high. Because of this dependence, an addict needs, or at least think they need, the drug to function normally, to deal with the day to day stresses of life. While physical dependence is not as common as with other drugs, it does occur quite frequently. Addicts who quit suddenly can undergo a series of withdrawal symptoms, some of which can be deadly.
- Depression – Ironically, many people, especially addicts, find themselves more depressed after long-term benzo use than when they first began. As mentioned, the way benzos affect the brain over time can lead to further chemical imbalances, including to dopamine receptors. The hampering of the brains dopamine releases can lead to depression. In the cases of depression, especially in light of benzo addiction, suicidality is exponentially increased.
- Overdose – Overdoses can happen to anyone who takes more than their recommended dose or at higher rates. In the cases of benzo addicts, they are far more likely to overdose since they are regularly pushing the envelope to chase the high. An overdose is the most likely, however, when either combined with drugs or other alcohol or following periods of respite from benzo use such as a stint in rehab. Once physical dependence is gone, a user who relapses might take their old dose, but their body will no longer be able to handle it. Signs of a benzo overdose are:
- blurred vision
- motor function failure
- respiratory depression
- slurred speech
- Pendulous Moods – Benzo addiction is formed by regular and persistent benzo consumption. Over time, such abuse can alter the way a person behaves and lead to rapidly shifting moods. Long term benzo use can cause erratic mood swings, which make it extremely difficult to interact with others or deal with normal living. Such mood swings only further affect the underlying social anxieties for which the drug was prescribed to dampen in the first place.
- Violent Behavior – One of the potential moods that addicts might regularly have is one of erratic rage. This often leads to violent behavior or actions, especially when someone has blacked out on benzos and alcohol. In such a state, addicts are aggressive, angry, stubborn, unresponsive and prone to violence. Because the brain’s processing has been hampered, the checks one has on emotions do not work, and what might usually remain beneath the surface will explode out. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has found that addiction leads to a general increase in anger and irritability and that it was the second most discovered substance in cases of violent crimes.
- Withdrawal – The more dependent upon Benzos, the less time you can function without it pumping through your veins. Withdrawal syndrome symptoms can occur within days, if not hours, of last use. Withdrawal symptoms include;
- Muscle tension
- Numbness in extremities
For the people in need, Benzos such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan, can be very effective at reducing anxieties as well as other symptoms. Nevertheless, rising addiction rates within the U.S. illustrate that benzos have an exceedingly high likelihood of leading to abuse and addiction. The long-term health consequences of benzo addiction are detrimental to your brain, body, mind, and spirit. Beyond the health issues that will inevitably arise with addiction, are the implications benzo addiction can have on homes, communities, and our country as a whole. If you find yourself addicted to some type of benzo and needing a benzo detox, immediately seek a medical professionals help so that you can get clean and protect your future.
Walker, Lean. “The Effects of Benzodiazepine Use.” Drugabuse.com. 14 Mar. 2019. https://drugabuse.com/benzodiazepines/effects-use/
“Do Benzodiazepines Cause Mental or Physical Harm?” American Addiction Centers. 14 Mar. 2019. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/benzodiazepine/mental-physical-effects
Dawson, George. “Long-Term Use of Benzodiazepines: Issues and Challenges.” Psychiatric News. 4 Mar. 2016. 14 Mar. 2019. https://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.pn.2016.PP3a1