Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs possessing sedative, hypnotic, anti-anxiety, anticonvulsant, and muscle relaxant properties. They are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in America and are used to treat anxiety, insomnia, depression, and seizures. A short list of benzodiazepines include: diazepam (Valium), clorazepate (Tranxene), oxazepam (Serzax), lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), temazepam (Restoril), and clonazepam (Klonopin).
Benzodiazepines are called psychoactive which means they affect the brain. They work by enhancing the effects of the brain’s existing tranquilizing chemical (called gamma aminobutyric acid or GABA), thereby affecting the central nervous system and counteracting other chemicals which might excite the body, like adrenalin. Because this drug type affects the brain directly, far reaching consequences have been discovered.
Benzodiazepine Use Linked with Brain Disorders
A study was completed and published in September, 2014 by several leading French and Canadian scientists into how benzodiazepines affect the brain. The study showed that even relatively short-term use of this drug type can cause permanent mental harm. After studying and following up with almost 2,000 older individuals, lead author Sophie Billioti de Gage and her team found that those taking benzodiazepines were up to 51% more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
To clarify, dementia is a general term referring to deterioration in one’s mental state severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, but there are other types of dementia, such as that caused by Parkinson’s disease or by stroke.
The study into long-term benzodiazepine effects showed variations in likelihood of future dementia. These variables primarily related to duration of use and dosages. Those taking a specific drug over a longer period of time (over 3 months) were more likely to develop dementia than individuals using the drug for a shorter period of time. Additionally, different benzodiazepines take a longer time to metabolize than others. Those individuals using the benzodiazepines which take longer than 20 hours to fully metabolize (like Librium, Valium, and Dalmane) were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia later in life.
The one variation that made no difference in later development of dementia was the condition for which the drug was prescribed. Whether the patient was given the drug for anxiety, seizures or insomnia, the results were the same. This is important to consider as some researchers wondered if the condition for which the benzodiazepines were prescribed caused the brain disorder. However, after extensive study it was found that the condition for which the drug was prescribed was not directly influencing the increase in dementia.
Other Benzodiazepine Dangers
Brain disorders are not the only negative effects benzodiazepines can have on a user. Other side effects include:
- Dizziness, loss of orientation, confusion
- Disturbed sleep
- Memory loss
- Changes in heart rate
- Brain atrophy
Attempting to stop benzodiazepine use without medical supervision can result in benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome, the symptoms for which include:
- Tension; irritability; anxiety
- Insomnia; disturbed sleep
- Nausea; dry retching
- Panic attacks
- Psychotic reactions
When withdrawing from benzodiazepines, it is highly recommended that one ease off with a slow reduction of doses, rather than stopping cold turkey, and that the process be supervised by a trained medical practitioner or addiction specialist.
Options for Treating Anxiety
1. Go to your doctor and get a full checkup. There are a number of physical illnesses whose symptoms include anxiety and depression. Amongst these are hyperthyroidism, heart disorders, anemia, diabetes, and hypoglycemia. A full blood workup, a look into hormones and allergies, and a complete physical examination should help one discover if they have any of the above problems.
2. Lay off the caffeine. The average coffee drinker consumes around 3 cups per day. That adds up to a lot of caffeine. Cut back to one cup a day and supplement your hot drink cravings with anti-anxiety teas like chamomile or green tea. Just be sure you aren’t drinking anything caffeinated before bedtime. Also skip the energy drinks altogether. They usually contain sugar and other chemicals in addition to loads of caffeine.
3. Try one of these calming herbs: valerian, passionflower, hops, kava or lemon balm. Just be sure to try them one at a time and don’t take them with prescription sedatives. Certain herbs do not mix well with pregnancy so be sure to check on that before using them.
4. Take vitamin and mineral supplements. There are a number of vitamins and minerals which have a calming effect. Vitamins and minerals are nutrients, aka food, so it is no wonder your body and brain get stressed out when these are deficient. Calming supplements include: B vitamins, Omega 3, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, theanine (an amino acid), and lactium (a milk protein).
5. Eat healthier. The above vitamins and minerals can all be found in natural food sources. Eating better foods can help increase your levels of these calming vitamins and will make you feel better in general. Some foods to add into your diet are leafy green vegetables, flax seed, fish, poultry, eggs, fresh fruit, beans, and molasses. On the other side of the coin, avoiding processed foods loaded with chemicals, preservatives and additives also helps reduce anxiety and makes for a healthier body and mind.
6. Exercise. Getting your muscles moving and the endorphins flowing is a great way to stop stressing. Not only does exercise get the feel-good chemicals going, a 20-30 minute workout has been proven to reliably reduce anxiety.
7. Take a soothing breath with aromatherapy. Scents like lavender, chamomile, sandalwood, peppermint, tangerine, lemon balm and eucalyptus can help calm the mind.
8. Get a massage. Taking some time out of your day to let someone else relax your body may be just the thing to help you melt your worries away. Another option is to take a cell phone-free and kid-free bath.
9. Write your worries down. Keeping a journal and writing down what is worrying you can help you take a step back and look at how to solve your troubles – bit by bit and piece by piece.
10. Take a wind-down walk. After a long, stressful day at the office, try winding down by taking a 20-30 minute stroll through the neighborhood, on a trail or around the block. Be sure to take in your surroundings and don’t look at your phone.
Psychoactive drugs like benzodiazepines may seem like a quick and easy fix. But with their adverse health effects, they are not an ideal option to say the least. At the very best they temporarily mask the problem, only to trigger a unique set of problems of their own. Be sure to explore the ways in which your anxiety can be solved holistically and without drugs.