Reprinted from "Medications" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (2), pp. 10-11
Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are a type of medication that “depresses” or slows down your central nervous system†. Benzos include tranquilizers and sleeping pills. In the medical world, they are called sedatives or anxiolytic agents.
A wide variety of benzos are manufactured by drug companies and sold in many countries around the world. Some of the most well-known types (and their trade names) are:
There are three types of benzos: short-acting, medium-acting and long-acting. This relates to the length of time the drug affects your body.
How benzos work
Benzos usually come in the form of pills or tablets and are either swallowed, dissolved under the tongue or administered as a suppository. They also come in liquid form and can be injected.
When benzos reach your brain, they increase the calming effects of a naturally occurring chemical (neurotransmitter) called gamma amino butyric acid (GABA). GABA’s natural function is to slow things down in the body.
Because benzos decrease activity in the central nervous system, they affect your emotional reactions, mental skills and physical abilities. For this reason, they are useful in treating anxiety disorders, insomnia, seizures and muscle spasms.
Reasons people use benzos
Doctors prescribe benzos to people who need help coping with anxiety or sleeping problems. These disorders are often the result of social or personal problems, such as grief, sexual assault, domestic violence, stress or mental health issues.
The drug is also given to people who suffer from headaches, high blood pressure, menstrual problems, skin conditions and injuries related to accidents. Benzos have proven effective in helping people through severe alcohol and other drug withdrawal.
People with age-related problems are most likely to use benzos. These problems may include arthritis, muscle pain, menopausal problems, sleeping difficulties and dementia.
Some people use benzos for recreational reasons. They may steal or borrow from someone else’s prescription because they like experiencing the feeling of extreme calmness or near sedation.
There are people who use benzos on others in order to commit a crime. Home invaders have been known to use flunitrazepam to drug victims during a robbery. The drug is also well known as a date rape drug.
Benefits and health risks
The way benzos affect you depends on your weight, age, mood and method of administration.
With the proper dosage, benzos can stop seizures or movement disorders. You may also experience a feeling of relaxation and contentment, reduced symptoms of panic or agitation, and reduced symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Some of the side effects that may occur include:
feeling drowsy and having no energy
becoming confused or dizzy
slurring words or stuttering
blurred or double vision
For older people, using benzos comes with special risks. Age-related changes in their bodies can make short- and medium-acting medication last longer. This can increase a person’s risk of overdosing. Other problems include:
impaired blood pressure regulation
emotional changes and worsening symptoms of depression
respiratory problems in people with emphysema and chronic bronchitis
Using benzos can be especially dangerous if you are:
Suffering from breathing problems. Because benzos slow down breathing, people with emphysema and sleep apnea are at increased risk of accidental death.
Mixing substances. When you mix benzos with alcohol and other depressants, you can become dangerously sedated or fall into a coma.
Pregnant. Babies born to mothers who regularly used benzos during pregnancy can develop learning and behavioural problems. A baby with large quantities of these drugs in its system suffers from severe withdrawal symptoms.1
Operating a vehicle. Driving under the influence of any drug, including prescription medications that are used illegally, is dangerous and against the law. Having high levels of benzos in your body can impair your ability to drive carefully.
Severe withdrawal symptoms can occur if you suddenly quit taking benzos. If you want to stop taking benzos you must talk to your doctor first.
Risk of addiction and related issues
Benzos are meant to be a temporary solution to a mental or physical health problem. When you take them for longer periods, they become less effective. This can cause you to start using higher amounts of the drug in order to get the desired effect. Over time, repeated use of higher and higher doses can lead to dependency.
Long-term use of benzos to soothe anxiety is likely to produce the opposite effect. This is because long-term use creates dependency, and dependency brings about withdrawal symptoms. Ultimately, you will become anxious about not taking your anxiety medication.
Benzos that are used as sleeping pills are only effective for one or two weeks. Longer use may cause an increase in the number of times you wake up in the night and a decrease in the amount of deep sleep you get.
Last word on benzos
Benzos have proven effective as a short-term method of managing or overcoming certain problems. People who understand the risks involved with extended or excessive dosages stand to benefit the most from this useful medication.
About the author
Nicole is the Publications Officer with the Communication and Resource Unit of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research of BC.
Benzos are occasionally prescribed to pregnant women without causing harm to the baby. Your doctor will consider factors such as frequency of use, dose and how you and your baby will be affected if you don’t use benzos.
Currie, J.C. (2003). Manufacturing addiction: The over-prescription of benzodiazepines and sleeping pills to women in Canada. Vancouver: BC Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health. www.cewh-cesf.ca/PDF/bccewh/benzobrief.pdf
Bell, C., Fischer, H., Gill, S. et al. (2007). Initiation of benzodiazepines in the elderly after hospitalization. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(7), 1024-1029. Also see the Institute of Clinical Evaluative Sciences website: www.ices.on.ca/webpage.cfm?site_id=1&org_id=31&morg_id=0&gsec_id=0&item_id=4164
This article is based on information from the Australian Drug Information Network:
Benzodiazepines, on the Reconnexion website: www.reconnexion.org.au/main/benzodiazepines.htm
Drug facts: Benzodiazepines, on the Centre for Drugs and Alcohol, New South Wales Health website: www.health.nsw.gov.au/public-health/dpb/publications/pdf/factsheets/benzos.pdf