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Benzodiazepine Tranquilizers:
Therapeutically effective, but also addicting

Written by Eric Golanty, Ph.D,
thehealthchannel.com Editorial Team

Benzodiazepine tranquilizers are among the most widely prescribed medications in the U.S. Each year, about 10-15 percent of the U.S. population takes one of these drugs one or more times. The most common uses for "benzos" are to reduce anxiety, to induce sleep, and to moderate symptoms of panic. These drugs are also used to relieve muscle spasms, lessen seizures, and treat alcohol and other substance abuse. The most widely prescribed "benzos" are alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan).

Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants, which means they slow the activities of a variety of nerve cells in the brain. These drugs, along with alcohol and other kinds of tranquilizers (called "sedative-hypnotics"), work by increasing the activity of a natural chemical in the brain called gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), which suppresses nerve cell activity.

Benzodiazepines, when taken simultaneously with alcohol, sedative-hypnotics, antihistamines, prescription pain medicine or narcotics, anticonvulsants, or anesthetics may cause unconsciousness and death.

Some side effects of benzodiazepines include...

  • poor concentration

  • confusion

  • daytime drowsiness

  • dizziness or lightheadedness

  • slurred speech

  • difficulty with balance and muscle coordination

  • impaired memory (beneficial in pre-surgery situations)

  • falls and related injuries (especially in the elderly)

  • anxiety; fast, pounding, or irregular heartbeat

  • depression

  • emotional blunting ("emotional anesthesia")

  • aggressive behavior, bizarre behavior, decreased inhibition, or outbursts of anger

  • allergies to the "filler" in the pills (lactose, parabens, or soybean oil)

  • birth defects, slowing of fetal metabolism and breathing at birth, and addiction in the fetus

  • drowsiness, difficulty feeding, and weight loss in breast-fed babies whose mothers take benzos

  • relapse of alcohol of drug abuse or dependence

The elderly are at high risk for benzodiazepine toxicity. Benzodiazepine use in the elderly is associated with an increased rate of falls and resultant hip and leg-bone fractures, an increased risk for motor vehicle accidents, various forms of mental impairment, and exacerbation of cognitive deterioration and dementia.

Benzodiazepines are addictive. Taking them daily for more than several months results in the brain changing its biology to adapt to the continual presence of the drug. This results in physical dependence and tolerance, which is needing higher doses of the drug to get the same effect. Physical dependence ushers in the likelihood of withdrawal symptoms if the drug is discontinued. Benzodiazepine withdrawal generally involves irritability, nervousness, trouble sleeping, abdominal or stomach cramps, trembling or shaking. People who believe they have become dependent on benzodiazepines should not discontinue taking them at once lest dangerous withdrawal symptoms occur. A doctor should oversee gradual discontinuation.

People can develop psychological dependence on benzodiazepines, too. Irrespective of its pharmacological properties, taking a benzodiazepine can become a crutch in one's everyday battle against anxiety, sleeplessness, and stress. Pill taking prevents the development of non-drug stress-management skills and fosters a lack of self-confidence in handling problems. Also, in our drug-taking culture, people (and some doctors) may believe that reliance on a drug is the preferred way to manage life

Although benzodiazepines are highly effective tranquilizers, the potential for physical and psychological dependence render them risky for long-term therapy. Alternative medications with little or no risk for dependency are available for treatment of anxiety disorders and sleep problems.

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