What Are Benzos?
Benzodiazepines, also known as “benzos,” are a class of synthetic prescription drugs that are commonly used to treat both acute and chronic anxiety. First developed in the 1950s, these drugs work by binding to gamma-aminobutyric acid-A, or GABA-A, neurotransmitters within the brain, which helps to desensitize the nerves in the brain.
As a result, patients who take benzos experience a decrease in symptoms linked to excessive brain activity, such as anxiety, racing thoughts, nervousness, insomnia, and muscle spasms. In some clinical settings, benzodiazepines may also be used to treat alcohol withdrawal.
Benzos can also be prescribed as an emergency treatment for epileptic seizures and similar disorders that are linked to excessive nerve activity within the brain. In these situations, the benzodiazepines are often administered via a rectal gel to maximize the absorption of the drugs by bypassing the digestive system.
Some of the most commonly known benzodiazepines on the market today include:
Most benzos are available in both fast-acting and extended-release oral tablets, while some are also formulated to be administered either rectally or as an injection.
Why Are Benzos So Addictive?
Benzos are among the most addictive prescription drugs on the market today because they provide users with rapid relief from uncomfortable symptoms caused by excessive brain activity. Simply put, they have the ability to make users feel good without impairing their ability to function the way alcohol and other substances can.
Not only do benzos work by suppressing excessive brain activity associated with panic disorders, insomnia, and general anxiety, but researchers have also discovered they can cause a surge in dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. This combination of reduced brain activity and the rapid increase in dopamine levels in the brain’s “reward area” makes benzos exceptionally addictive, even when used on a short-term basis.
Adding to the chemical mechanism of benzos is the fact that they’ve long been considered socially acceptable and medically safe. Unlike street drugs such as heroin and cocaine, these are prescription medications, and this tends to give users and many medical professionals a sense that these drugs are therefore safe. This, combined with the fact that only a few states actually track prescriptions of drugs like Ativan, Klonopin, and Xanax, has made it relatively easy for patients to access benzos.
Can Benzo Abuse Cause Death?
When used on their own, benzos are considered to be a relatively safe class of drug in terms of overdose and death risk — taking them alone has rarely been implicated in overdoses. The trouble is that when benzos are mixed with alcohol or other central nervous system depressants, the effects of both substances are significantly magnified, often leading to deadly consequences.
Combining even a therapeutic dose of a drug such as Xanax with one or two servings of wine, beer or liquor can cause serious side effects such as respiratory failure, impaired cognition, and unconsciousness. This is why some benzo-related deaths involve drowning in a bathtub because the victim’s natural ability to resist drowning was completely suppressed by the drug combination in their system.
Benzos have also been implicated in the Germanwings airline tragedy in 2015, which took the lives of 150 passengers and crew aboard an Airbus A320. German prosecutors report that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, was taking benzos to treat anxiety related to a vision problem he had, and that medication came with a warning that users may become suicidal. Investigators believe that Lubitz locked the captain out of the cockpit and deliberately flew the plane into the side of a mountain, killing himself and everyone aboard.
Celebrities Who Have Abused Benzos
Benzo use and abuse among celebrities have been brought into the spotlight recently with the deaths of a number of well-known personalities such as Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, both who were found with a combination of benzos and alcohol in their systems when they died. Previously, actress Brittany Murphy, actor Heath Ledger, and pop star Michael Jackson were also found to have ingested one or more types of benzos immediately prior to their untimely deaths.
Another well-known user was Anna Nicole Smith, who passed away from a drug overdose that included benzos in 2007. Historically, benzo use has been relatively prominent within the entertainment world, where access to drugs has been easy for celebrities who are seeking help to overcome anxiety disorders that could impact their careers.
According to Dr. Harris Stratyner, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, “One of the finest and best things you can use for co-occurring anxiety if you’re going to use a medication is a benzodiazepine.”
Stratyner explains that benzodiazepines are also “phenomenal muscle relaxants,” making them attractive to a “pill-oriented society” that has little time to de-stress using meditation or yoga.
While many celebrity benzo users have perished, a number have also successfully survived their addiction and are now speaking out about the dangers of this class of drugs. Stephen King, one of the world’s best-known fiction writers, reportedly spent years using a dangerous cocktail of drugs that included cocaine, Xanax, Valium, and beer. His family eventually staged an intervention and he went into treatment, and it’s reported that he later revealed he couldn’t even remember writing some of his best-selling novels.
Another well-known benzo addict is the singer Fergie, who was addicted to Xanax. According to Fergie, “With any drugs, everything is great at the beginning, and then slowly your life starts to spiral down.”
Want More Info About Benzo Addiction?
If you’re concerned about how benzo use is impacting your life or the life of someone you care about, contact us here at FHE Health. We’re available to help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.