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The Addictive Effects of Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepine drugs are used to treat anxiety, insomnia and a handful of other conditions. The Center for Substance Abuse Research notes that there are more than 15 different types currently on the market. Among those most commonly prescribed are alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), diazepam (Valium) and clonazepam (Klonopin). Benzodiazepines are also widely used recreationally, often in combination with alcohol or other drugs.

How Benzodiazepines Affect Neurotransmitter Levels

The Addictive Effects of Benzodiazepines

Because of the drugs’ effects on neurotransmitters, benzodiazepines can cause users to develop tolerance, dependence and addiction quickly

Benzodiazepine drugs work by altering levels of certain neurotransmitters. Their calming effect is due to their effect on GABA, the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the body. GABA reduces the excitability of neurons. The human body contains cells with receptor sites that bind GABA, and benzodiazepine drugs can also bind to these sites and make the receptor cells more efficient.

Benzodiazepines like clonazepam also affect the level of dopamine. Dopamine is the body’s feel-good neurotransmitter. The human body releases dopamine in response to activities such as eating or procreation that help ensure the survival of the species. The release of dopamine gives people the motivation to repeat an activity.

Almost all drugs of abuse cause an increase in dopamine although the mechanism of action may differ. In a 2012 article, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that the mechanism by which benzodiazepines increase dopamine had been discovered. The drugs act similarly to opioids, cannabinoids and GHB. Certain cells in the brain, called inhibitory interneurons, normally help prevent dopamine levels from rising excessively. Benzodiazepines and certain other drugs weaken the influence of these cells.

How Benzodiazepine Addiction Develops

The development of addiction is generally due to the rewarding effects of dopamine and to the body’s attempt to regulate its levels and the levels of other neurotransmitters. The body is always attempting to maintain homeostasis, or balance, and when it senses that neurotransmitter levels are out of balance, it compensates. When levels are too high, it produces less or makes receptor cells less sensitive. This causes people to need to take more and more of a substance to achieve the effects they once received from a lower dose.

When people begin to need larger amounts of a drug, they have developed drug tolerance. When they experience withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not in their body, they have developed physical dependence. Addiction sets in when they lose control over their consumption and continue to take the drug, despite negative consequences.

Unfortunately, tolerance, dependence and addiction to benzodiazepine drugs like clonazepam can develop easily and quickly. An article in the journal American Family Physician notes that tolerance to the drugs’ anti-insomnia effects tends to develop more quickly than to the anti-anxiety properties but that after four to six months of regular use, there is little evidence that the drugs retain any biological usefulness. The authors note that patients may remain on the drugs to avoid withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms include insomnia and anxiety making it difficult for patients to realize that they are experiencing withdrawal effects and not symptoms of the original condition.

Dangers of Benzodiazepine Use

Long-term use of benzodiazepines can cause multiple physical, mental and emotional complications. Because the drugs depress the central nervous system (CNS), muscle weakness, impaired reaction time and loss of coordination are common. This can raise the risk of falls and accidents including automobile accidents. It is also common for the drugs to impair memory and concentration. These affects may linger long after the drugs are no longer being used.

Overdose is a significant risk factor associated with all drugs that depress the CNS. The risk is magnified when sedating substances are combined. When people use benzodiazepine drugs along with alcohol, certain antidepressants, antihistamines or prescription painkillers, breathing and other bodily processes may be slowed to a dangerous or fatal level.

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) monitors emergency room admissions to gauge drug abuse effects. In a 2014 report they note that benzodiazepines like clonazepam caused almost one million emergency room visits between 2005 and 2011. The report examined serious outcomes (death or hospitalization) and found the risk to be significant for patients of all ages who used benzodiazepines alone. Patients who combined benzodiazepines with either alcohol or opioid pain relievers saw the risk increase by 24 to 55 percent.

Treating Benzodiazepine Addiction

People who have developed an addiction to a benzodiazepine drug need detox followed by comprehensive addiction treatment. The method and length of detox may vary depending on the specific drug, the commonly used dosage and the length of time the drug was taken. Sometimes patients are switched from one benzodiazepine drug to another, generally one with a longer half-life, and then the dosage is tapered slowly. After detox, addiction treatment should include the identification and treatment of co-existing mental health conditions. For patients recovering from benzodiazepine addiction, this often includes addressing anxiety.

If you or someone you love needs treatment for addiction to a benzodiazepine like clonazepam or other type of drug, give us a call. Our helpline is toll-free and staffed 24 hours a day. Someone is always ready to answer your questions and help you find the addiction treatment program that best meets your needs. We can also check your insurance coverage for you if you wish at no cost or obligation. You can reclaim your life. Why not call now?