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from 'The New Guide to Women's Health'
by Dr Norma Williams and Hetty Einzig
first published in 1985

Every woman who is offered a prescription should ask what are the actions and possible side effects of the drug being prescribed. If it is explained to you that these are tranquillisers and will make you feel calmer, you need to consider whether you really would feel better if you suffered any of the common side effects of the drugs. In the British National Formulary, the annual authoritative publication on drugs and their uses, the possible side effects of Valium (the most commonly prescribed tranquilliser) are listed as drowsiness, dizziness, unsteadiness, confusion, dry mouth, and hypersensitivity reactions, including skin rashes and breathing difficulties.

In terms of the ultimate benefits of these drugs, you alone must decide whether their sedative effects are worth risking any or all of these side effects. The British National Formulary does not provide much information regarding long-term addiction but it states quite clearly: 'Although there is a tendency to prescribe these drugs to almost anyone with stress-related symptoms, unhappiness, or minor physical disease, their use in many situations is unjustified.'

Long-term dependency on sleeping pills and tranquillisers is common. The most serious long-term effect is that it has a depressant, and sometimes paralysing, action on our decision-making ability.

All drugs and so-called stimulants, like alcohol, cigarettes and coffee, ultimately have a depressant effect on the body (and on the mind) by slowing down the conduction of nerve stimuli in the brain and suppressing the action of the hypothalamus (our alarm apparatus). The hypothalamus initiates our reactions to fear, sex and sleep, so suppression of its activity can result in disturbed behaviour in all of these areas. Dreaming sleep is suppressed by sleeping pills, and some of the most unpleasant withdrawal symptoms after stopping the pills are nightmares, interrupted sleep, and frightening fantasies as the body over-compensates and re-adjusts after such deprivation. Other withdrawal symptoms include shivering, shaking, suicidal depression, extreme fatigue, severe anxiety and confusion.

  • 34 per cent of British women have been prescribed tranquillisers or sleeping pills at some time.

  • 75 per cent of the 13 million prescriptions written annually for tranquillisers are for women. This means that every year, nearly 10 million women take tranquillisers.

  • Tranquillisers work by damping down intelligence and self-perception.

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