The Hard Truth Behind Benzodiazepines Addiction
What are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are a type of medication in the class of minor tranquilizers. Numerous types of benzodiazepines exist, and many of these are sold under disparate brand names. While effects vary among the different varieties of benzodiazepines on the market, they generally have anxiolytic effects, meaning that they reduce anxiety in people who take them. Many benzodiazepines also have hypnotic effects (inducing sleep), anticonvulsant effects, sedating effects, and also help to relax muscles. As such, benzodiazepines are prescribed for a variety of purposes, ranging from treating anxiety to alleviating the muscle spasms associated with seizures. They are also often effectively used for treating alcohol withdrawal syndrome and insomnia. Given their usefulness for so many different conditions, benzodiazepines are one of the most widely prescribed classes of medications in the United States.
Benzodiazepines, which are formed by fusing the chemical compounds benzene and diazepine, were invented in 1955 and first made available in the 1960s. They work by targeting a neurotransmitter in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) at the GABAA receptor. The GABA neurotransmitter is chiefly responsible for reducing excitability among neurons in the brain and nervous system. By enhancing the effects of the GABA neurotransmitter, benzodiazepines, along with other drugs like alcohol, provide a sedating effect that can reduce anxiety and calm nerves.
Many varieties of benzodiazepines are sold on the market today, and they are generally categorized based on how quickly effects come on and how long they last. While shorter-acting benzodiazepines are most effective for insomnia and panic attacks, longer-acting benzodiazepines are frequently prescribed for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Many patients on benzodiazepines are prescribed multiple varieties of the medication to deal with varying circumstances, such as an individual who takes longer-acting benzodiazepines to deal with generalized anxiety disorder and quick-acting benzodiazepines to deal with occasional panic attacks. The versatility of these medications is part of what makes them such a commonly used remedy.
In recent years, some of the negative effects of benzodiazepines have come to light. Individuals who take the medication for long periods of time often not only find that they become less effective, but many suffer from physical dependence, mental health and memory problems, and severe withdrawal effects. While short term use of benzodiazepines is often perceived as safe and effective, even relatively short term use can, like alcohol, remove behavioral inhibitions and result in dangerous or aggressive behavior. Benzodiazepine use can even result in suicidal ideation, and because of their disinhibitory effects, the likelihood of someone making an attempt on their own life is dramatically increased. Current research suggests that pregnant women and the elderly are at a particular risk for these dangerous side effects. As such, it is important for benzodiazepines to be taken only as directed and under careful medical supervision.
Withdrawal from benzodiazepines is not only difficult, but very dangerous. The process of withdrawing from benzodiazepines can be torturous and traumatic. While opioids may be more famous for their excruciating withdrawal effects, withdrawal from benzodiazepines is actually far more dangerous. Many people suffer from intensified versions of the conditions they were originally prescribed benzodiazepines to treat. Anxiety, cognitive problems, memory issues, nausea, muscle pain, and heart palpitations are some of the most common withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawing from higher doses of benzodiazepines can result in hallucinations, psychosis, increased risk of suicide, convulsions, delirium tremens, and even catatonic comas that can result in death. Unlike other withdrawal timelines that are characterized by gradual reductions in symptoms with each passing day, benzodiazepine withdrawal is notable for occurring in waves; effects dissipate for periods of time, only to re-occur more intensely weeks later. Because of its complicated nature and associated dangers, benzodiazepine withdrawal generally requires medical supervision.
Taking benzodiazepines can result in potentially life-threatening overdoses. Individuals who take high doses of benzodiazepines can enter comas. When the medication is taken alongside other drugs, especially central nervous system depressants like alcohol and opioids, the risk of overdose increases. Respiratory depression is more likely to occur due to the increased dangers surrounding these drug interactions. Taking benzodiazepines along with alcohol tends to increase the effects of the latter, and many users report blacking out after drinking only small amounts of alcohol. Unfortunately, because benzodiazepines reduce inhibitions, it is easy for an individual to impulsively engage in this kind of dangerous drug abuse.
Benzodiazepines were developed in 1955 by an Austrian chemist named Leo Sternbach. Sternbach was working for the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann–La Roche. While trying to develop tranquilizers, Sternbach accidentally synthesized chlordiazepoxide but considered the product a mistake and opted not to test it. Several years later, a co-worker cleaning the lab discovered the abandoned compound and decided to submit it to tests. After animal tests demonstrated chlordiazepoxide’s remarkable sedating, muscle-relaxant, and anticonvulsant effects, the company began selling it in 1960 as Librium. Shortly thereafter, the company began marketing another benzodiazepine, diazepam (Valium). Both Librium and Valium became enormously popular, supplanting barbiturates and other hypnotic and sedative drugs.
For a period of time, benzodiazepines were prescribed very freely. As a result, they were the most popular medications in the United States. However, by the 1980s it was becoming increasingly obvious that benzodiazepine prescriptions came with some notable risks. In fact, the largest class action lawsuit in the United Kingdom came about when over 14,000 patients and 1,800 law firms claimed that pharmaceutical companies deliberately withheld information about the risks of addiction. While the case never reached a verdict, the result was that doctors began informing patients about the dangers associated with benzodiazepine use and even required patients to sign a consent form before receiving a prescription. The days of considering benzodiazepines a miracle drug had come to an end.
Today benzodiazepines are still commonly prescribed, especially for anxiety disorders, though psychiatrists generally aim to prevent patients from relying on the drugs for too long. Their popularity as a treatment for insomnia has waned in favor of a class of drug called nonbenzodiazepines, which are different on a molecular level but behave like traditional benzodiazepines psychodynamically. In the United States, benzodiazepines are classified as a Schedule IV drug, meaning that some potential for abuse and dependence is recognized. Benzodiazepines are in fact widely abused, especially among individuals who already abuse other substances (poly-drug abusers). The ubiquity of benzodiazepine abuse not only leads to countless deaths for year, it has even had an impact on youth culture, with rappers frequently talking about “popping xannnies” (xanax). Given the drugs’ continued importance in medical care and its popularity for recreational use, it looks like for the time being benzodiazepines are here to stay.
Benzodiazepine Street Names
Benzodiazepines are often taken as prescribed, in which case they are generally referred to by their official brand names. However, because there is a thriving black market for benzodiazepines, a variety of alternative names have flourished over the decades. Drug dealers and distributors often use code names to avoid detection by law enforcement agencies. Many names have also emerged from the drug culture itself, with many young people finding that colloquial terms of the drug are more exciting than medical terminology. While these names are always changing over time, we’ve attempted to list some of the most common terms for different benzodiazepines below. However, it should be noted that all of these medications are commonly referred to merely as “benzos.”