Substance Use

Benzodiazepine Abuse: The Side Effects of Overuse

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Benzodiazepine overuse, exceeding the FDA-recommended range of 3–7, brings about pronounced consequences, notably an increased likelihood of sleepiness beyond the typical 1–2 range. (1) This surplus lethargy can significantly impede daily functioning and pose heightened risks.

When stimulants are introduced, the complexities of overuse intensify, amplifying health hazards. Recognizing the significance of adhering to FDA guidelines is crucial, as surpassing these limits not only undermines therapeutic efficacy but also elevates the potential for adverse outcomes, necessitating heightened awareness and professional intervention to address the intricate dynamics of benzodiazepine abuse.

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What Is Benzodiazepine and Its Uses

Benzodiazepines, often referred to as “benzos,” represent a class of psychoactive drugs that exert their effects on the central nervous system. (2) Benzodiazepines are a class of synthetic compounds characterized by a benzene ring fused with a diazepine ring.

These chemical structures underlie their pharmacological actions, which primarily involve modulation of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain.

By enhancing the inhibitory effects of GABA, benzodiazepines contribute to a calming effect on the nervous system. (3)

The key mechanism of benzodiazepines revolves around their interaction with the GABA-A receptor, a neurotransmitter receptor in the brain. Benzodiazepines bind to a specific site on the GABA-A receptor complex, facilitating the opening of the chloride ion channel. (4)

This increased permeability to chloride ions hyperpolarizes the neuron, making it less excitable. The net effect is an amplification of GABAergic neurotransmission, resulting in sedation, anxiolysis, and muscle relaxation. (4)

Benzodiazepines find application across various medical domains due to their versatile pharmacological actions.

Some of the most common and long-acting therapeutic uses include:

  1. Anxiety Disorders: Benzodiazepines are frequently prescribed to alleviate symptoms of anxiety disorders. They provide rapid relief by calming excessive neuronal activity in the brain, making them particularly useful in acute situations.
  2. Insomnia: Certain benzodiazepines, with their sedative properties, are employed in the management of insomnia. They help induce and maintain sleep, offering a solution for individuals experiencing sleep disturbances. (5)
  3. Seizure Disorders: The anticonvulsant properties of benzodiazepines make them valuable in the treatment of certain seizure disorders. They can be administered during acute seizures to terminate or prevent prolonged seizures.
  4. Muscle Spasms and Spasticity: Benzodiazepines exhibit muscle relaxant effects, making them beneficial in the treatment of muscle spasms and spasticity associated with conditions such as multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries.
  5. Alcohol Withdrawal: Benzodiazepines are employed in the management of alcohol withdrawal symptoms due to their ability to mitigate anxiety, agitation, and seizures associated with abrupt cessation of alcohol consumption. (6)
  6. Sedation and Anesthesia: In medical procedures, certain benzodiazepines may be used for sedation or as part of anesthesia protocols due to their calming and amnestic effects.

The Common Side Effects of Prescribed Benzodiazepine Use

Benzodiazepines, while widely prescribed for their therapeutic benefits, are not exempt from the potential occurrence of side effects. It is key for Americans using these medications, as well as healthcare providers, to be aware of the common side effects associated with benzodiazepine use.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines are: (7)

  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Halcion (triazolam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide)

Some of the most common side effects of using benzodiazepines are as follows: (8)

  • Drowsiness and Fatigue: Individuals using benzodiazepines commonly report feelings of drowsiness and fatigue. This sedative effect can be pronounced, impacting energy levels and alertness. Particularly noticeable after initial doses or dosage adjustments, it’s important for users to exercise caution when engaging in activities requiring mental acuity.
  • Cognitive Impairment: Benzodiazepines may induce cognitive impairment, affecting concentration, memory, and overall mental function. Users may find tasks requiring cognitive precision more challenging. Monitoring cognitive effects is crucial, especially for those engaged in activities demanding heightened mental focus.
  • Dizziness and Lightheadedness: Sensations of dizziness and lightheadedness are frequent side effects associated with benzodiazepine use. Changes in body position, such as standing up quickly, can exacerbate these feelings. Managing these symptoms is essential to preventing any potential accidents or falls.
  • Unsteadiness and Lack of Coordination: Impaired motor skills and coordination are often reported by individuals using benzodiazepines. A sense of unsteadiness may accompany these effects. Users should be mindful of their physical coordination, particularly in situations that require balance and precision.
  • Gastrointestinal Distress: Gastrointestinal issues, including nausea or constipation, are recognized side effects of benzodiazepine use. Monitoring and addressing these symptoms can contribute to overall comfort during the course of treatment. Open communication with healthcare providers is crucial to managing and alleviating such gastrointestinal concerns.

Benzodiazepine Abuse

These drugs are prescribed for legitimate short-acting medical purposes, primarily to manage anxiety, insomnia, and certain seizure disorders. However, when individuals use benzodiazepines in a manner inconsistent with medical guidelines, it constitutes abuse.

Abuse can take various forms, including:

  1. Taking Higher Doses: Individuals may consume benzodiazepines in doses exceeding what is prescribed, seeking heightened euphoria, relaxation, or sedation. This can lead to an increased risk of adverse effects and dependency.
  2. Non-Prescription Use: Obtaining benzodiazepines without a legitimate prescription is a common form of abuse. Some individuals may procure these medications from illicit sources, including friends, family, or online platforms.
  3. Combining with Other Substances: Benzodiazepines are sometimes abused in conjunction with other substances, such as alcohol or opioids, to intensify their effects. This practice significantly heightens the risk of dangerous health complications, including respiratory depression.
  4. Continuous Use Beyond Prescribed Duration: Prolonged use of benzodiazepines beyond the prescribed duration or without proper medical oversight is indicative of abuse and can result in a use disorder. Additionally, it may result in the development of tolerance and dependence, creating a substance use disorder.

Benzodiazepine abuse poses serious health risks, including addiction, cognitive impairment, and an increased likelihood of overdose. It is imperative for individuals struggling with substance abuse to seek professional help and intervention with the help of their loved ones.

What Are the Common Short-Term Side Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse?

Sure, this drug is used for actual therapeutic reasons, but there are some adverse effects of taking it. If someone is on this medication and has turned to drug abuse, there are increased risks or serious side effects.

The most common side effect of abusing benzodiazepines is a change in the way you feel. This is a welcome side effect for individuals with psychiatric conditions such as severe anxiety disorder or panic disorder. Unfortunately, this is the same side effect that creates the scenario for addiction and abuse. 

Medications in this class are generally well-tolerated, with nausea and drowsiness being the two most commonly reported side effects. Short-term side effects of benzo use are both mental and physical. It begins with a craving to use more of the medication than is prescribed.

Usually, a person knows they shouldn’t do this, but they feel excessively anxious if they don’t follow the impulse.

This is a vicious cycle for those with mental health disorders. Continuous abuse ends in benzodiazepine dependence.

The short-term side effects of benzodiazepine abuse include the following:

  • Inability to function without benzodiazepines
  • Intolerance to a regularly prescribed dose
  • Withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop, including:
    • Depersonalization
    • Hypersensitivity
    • Memory problems
    • Tremors
    • Sleep disturbances
    • Anxiety
  • Memory loss
  • Physical dependence, or benzodiazepine withdrawal
  • Serious sleep disorders
  • High blood pressure
  • Panic attacks

What Are the Long-Term Use Side Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse?

For acute anxiety or temporary disorders, benzodiazepines are prescribed on an as-needed basis. However, if an individual begins abusing their prescription and it isn’t refilled, they may seek out the drug illegally. This risky behavior is a typical side effect of long-term benzodiazepine abuse.

Other risky behaviors may include:

  • Driving under the influence of benzodiazepines or another substance
  • Sneaking to purchase pills off the street or from a friend with a benzodiazepine prescription
  • Altering their prescription
  • Doctor shopping to get the medication from another provider
  • Pretending their condition has returned to get more

In addition to risky behavior, benzodiazepine abuse causes a person to have fluctuations in their moods. They may seem ordinary one moment and extremely agitated the next. And even though benzodiazepines are prescribed for anxiety, a person abusing them may develop anxiety as a side effect. 

Although benzodiazepines calm the central nervous system, a person who abuses this medication may experience involuntary muscle spasms and twitching. 

Taking high doses of this medication (benzodiazepine toxicity or benzodiazepine overdose) can also result in respiratory depression. This condition causes the lungs to become too relaxed to exchange air and oxygen effectively. (9) If this side effect isn’t treated immediately, it could cause lung failure and even death. 

Does Benzodiazepine Abuse Affect Your Personality?

Benzodiazepine abuse can cause a person to develop significant mental changes. (10) This typically consists of a mellowing effect that may look like intoxication to others. People often seek out this effect and remain in a stupor for most of the day.

This causes them to skip school or work and miss important deadlines. They may also forget more than usual and become agitated. 

Benzodiazepine Overuse Pathology, Misuses, and Complications

Benzodiazepines, a class of prescription medications commonly used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and certain medical conditions, can be beneficial when used as directed by a healthcare professional. However, when misused or overused, they can lead to a range of complications and health issues.

The pathology of benzodiazepine overdose often involves the development of tolerance, meaning that over time, individuals may require higher doses to achieve the same effects. This can easily lead to dependence and addiction, as the body becomes reliant on the drug to function normally.

Misuses of benzodiazepines can involve taking them recreationally without a prescription or combining them with other substances, such as alcohol, which can intensify their effects and increase the risk of overdose. (11)

Complications arising from benzodiazepine misuse are numerous and can include cognitive impairment, memory problems, drowsiness, respiratory depression, and even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation.

What Drugs, Substances, or Supplements Interact with Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are known to cause interactions with other substances and prescription drugs. (12) Unfortunately, there isn’t a complete list of the drugs or supplements benzodiazepines interact with, so it’s best to tell your physician if you’re taking something before starting them.

Commonly known drugs that interact with benzodiazepines include:  

  • Opioids (2)
  • Sleep medications such as Lunesta and Sonata
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
  • Fluoroquinolone antibiotics like ciprofloxacin
  • Other tranquilizers

Benzodiazepines may interact with certain vitamin supplements and herbal supplements. Therefore, consult your prescribing physician before beginning a new course of vitamins or supplements.

Get The Help You Need, Today!

Recognizing the signs of benzodiazepine abuse and seeking professional intervention is paramount for individuals caught in this complex web. Addressing benzodiazepine abuse involves a comprehensive approach that combines medical support, therapeutic interventions, and a commitment to long-term recovery from drug use.

Have you mixed benzodiazepines with another medication despite the negative consequences? If so, Zinnia Health treatment centers can help. We understand how complicated quitting benzodiazepines cold turkey can be. Our staff of experienced professionals can create a specialized treatment program just for you. Call us at (855) 430-9439 to begin your journey to sobriety today.


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