Benzodiazepines: What are they and what do they do?

It is estimated that doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for alprazolam,  more commonly known by its name brand, Xanax, per year. Xanax is a fast-acting medication used to treat anxiety and panic attacks, as are its sister medications of which millions of prescriptions are written for as well-  Ativan and Klonopin.

So what are these medications? And why are so many people taking them?

These medications are all benzodiazepines or more commonly known as “benzos”.  Benzodiazepines are a class of central nervous system depressants that work by enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, also known as GABA. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that effectively slows down nerve impulses throughout the body. This slow down then results in increased feelings of relaxation and calmness. GABA can also produce sedation and relieve muscle spasms.

GABA inhibiting medications, like Xanax are often prescribed to treat the following medical conditions:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Seizure control
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Inducing amnesia for uncomfortable procedures
  • Given before an anesthetic (such as before surgery)

Benzodiazepines have been around for decades, and have been used to treat the aforementioned conditions, as well as some others. These include but are not limited to the treatment of stress-induced sleep disturbances and phobias.

One of the reasons these medications are prescribed often is because of how effective they are- in the short term. However, when used for a long period of time, they can become habit-forming and the body can become dependent and even addicted to them.

Express Scripts, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the United States, recently reported that prescriptions for benzodiazepines increased by more than a third during the first month that COVID-19 hit the country. This, combined with data released by The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which estimated 1 out of 8 Americans were already taking benzos, resulted in the highest period of benzodiazepine use in American history.

And it’s not just in the US.

In recent years, due to the relatively high risk of addiction, experts have also expressed concern about benzodiazepine use in England, France, Australia, and Israel, where the number of people taking these benzodiazepines continues to grow. And in turn, abuse and dependency on benzos is on the rise.

For someone with a crippling phobia of flying, a benzodiazepine can be a lifesaver. The benzo’s activation of the calming chemical GABA works quickly and effectively. However, when used too much, these medicines can cause an overall slowing of brain function that can adversely affect coordination and concentration and can cause excessive sleepiness and emotional numbness.

Though there is the risk of dependency and abuse, benzodiazepines can be very effective and helpful medications when taken strictly as directed, and under the frequent supervision of a doctor. These medications are also best for short-term use.

If you have previous issues with addiction, it is important to share this with your doctor, as there are many alternatives to benzodiazepines that may be a better fit.

In our next article, we will look at benzodiazepine dependency and abuse, and provide information on what to do if you or a loved one is experiencing it.

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