Benzodiazepines are medications used to treat various conditions, including anxiety and sleep disorders. They are deemed safe when taken for a short period but have serious long-term effects on the body if taken frequently for several years.

One of the main side-effects of benzodiazepine abuse is that it causes physical dependence. This means that the body becomes so accustomed to the drug that it essentially requires large amounts to function properly.Treatment of benzodiazepine addiction is a difficult process, as the drugs have a very high potential for abuse. benzodiazepine addiction is often treated with other medications, such as methadone or buprenorphine, which help to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Dependence

Long-term benzodiazepine use can result in disinhibition, reduced attention and memory, and depression.

The long-term consequences of benzodiazepines may differ from those produced by acute use. According to a study, patients with cancer who took tranquilizers or sleeping pills had a significantly poorer quality of life and an iller clinical condition.

Compared to individuals who did not take tranquilizers or sleeping tablets, those who took tranquilizers or sleeping pills had a greater incidence of worsening symptoms, including tiredness, sleeplessness, pain, dyspnea, and constipation.

Most individuals who quit hypnotic therapy after a slow taper and do not use benzodiazepines for six months have less severe sleep and anxiety issues, are less distressed, and report feeling better overall.

Benzodiazepines are highly addictive, having triggered over one million drug-related deaths worldwide since the early 1980s. Benzodiazepine use for the treatment of anxiety has been linked to an enormous rise in healthcare expenditures owing to injuries and other health problems associated with long-term usage.

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Cognitive status

Long-term use of benzodiazepines can harm cognitive functioning. One study found that patients who had been taking benzodiazepines for a year or more did worse in neuropsychological tests than those who were currently using the drug, those who had used it in the past but were not using it currently, or those who had never used benzodiazepines.

Long-term users often have impaired cognitive functioning in learning, memory, processing speed, reasoning, task flexibility, and nonverbal problem-solving. This is due to excessive dosing over too long a period.

The Effects of Benzodiazepines on Sleep

benzodiazepines can worsen or cause difficulty initiating and maintaining a good night’s sleep. They suppress rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage in which dreaming occurs. One paper reported that patients who have taken benzodiazepines long-term have significantly less dreaming over several weeks to months.

Benzodiazepines also reduce slow-wave sleep during the first half of the night. The effect is particularly pronounced with triazolam because it has a short half-life which means it leaves the system quickly, causing rebound insomnia.

Incidence of Insomnia

Benzodiazepines are commonly used to help people sleep at night, with 6% of American adults taking the drugs in 2009 alone. However, up to 25% of these individuals experience residual daytime sleepiness even after discontinuing use for many months or years. Even if they wake up refreshed in the morning, they may still have trouble sleeping at night because benzodiazepines disrupt circadian rhythms and increase alpha waves during the day, making it difficult to go back to sleep later on at night.

One study concluded that long-term users could fall asleep more rapidly than non-users but had poorer quality nocturnal sleep overall. This would be consistent with other research, which indicates that benzodiazepines produce rebound insomnia after the effects of the drugs wear off.

The Effects of Benzodiazepines on Executive Functioning

Benzodiazepine use can compromise executive function or cognitive functioning related to decision-making and planning. A recent study found that long-term users performed worse than non-users or short-duration users in tasks requiring flexibility of thinking and problem-solving. This could be due to reduced blood flow to frontal brain regions caused by chronic dosing with benzodiazepines over months or years.

The effect is so pronounced that one paper reported that if someone had taken benzodiazepines for more than 3 weeks, their ability to perform complex tasks involving planning might never return to normal.

Long-term benzodiazepine users also performed worse than non-users and short-duration users in tasks involving memory and attention, such as recalling lists of words or doing the Stroop test: naming the color ink of words printed in another color.

People who have been taking benzodiazepines long-term also have trouble with verbal fluency tests, such as coming up with words that begin with certain letters.

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Immune system function

Long-term use of benzodiazepines has been associated with an increased risk of pneumonia. One study found that people who had taken benzodiazepine drugs for longer than 6 months were almost 2 times more likely to develop pneumonia than non-users.

Another paper reported that long-term users were more than 6 times more likely to get pneumonia than non-users. Researchers hypothesized that this might be due to the combined effects of benzodiazepine use over many years and increased age, which can compromise immune system function.

Benzodiazepines & Cancer Risk

Benzodiazepines have been associated with an increased risk of cancer. One Danish study found that people taking high doses of benzodiazepines had a 2.7 times greater risk of cancer than non-users, while those taking lower doses had 1.4 times the risk.

The researchers speculated that benzodiazepines might interfere with immune system function, compromising tumor surveillance and increasing susceptibility to cancer. A second paper reported that patients prescribed benzodiazepines for anxiety had a higher risk of colorectal cancer than those not prescribed the drugs.

The researchers hypothesized that benzodiazepines might affect gut bacteria, which play an important role in maintaining immune system function and also cause oxidative stress (damage to cells by free radicals).

 Suicide and self-harm

According to one Swedish study, long-term benzodiazepine use has been associated with an increased risk of suicide in people taking higher doses.

The researchers speculated that high doses might cause depression by interfering with the action of serotonin in brain regions involved in mood regulation. Benzodiazepines also increase the risk of self-harm in women, according to a study conducted in Denmark.

Women taking benzodiazepines were 2.5 times as likely to self-harm as non-users, while men using the drugs had an 80% higher chance of engaging in this behavior.

Long-term users also have a higher risk of death from any cause than those who don’t take the drugs at all, according to an analysis of data from over 6000 people in the UK.

A second study found that 5-year benzodiazepine users were at least 13% more likely to die than non-users. The researchers suggest that long-term use might contribute to death in several ways: by increasing susceptibility to infection, increasing the risk of cancer, which would shorten life expectancy, and interfering with cognitive function.

The Mental Effects of Benzodiazepines

Other side-effects include memory loss, dementia, psychosis, depression, aggression, and other behavioral problems. Stopping benzodiazepine abuse after prolonged periods can cause withdrawal symptoms, including insomnia, mood swings, and anxiety attacks.

People who take benzodiazepines for a long time increase their risk of developing an anxiety disorder instead of those who do not. This is because the drugs cause feelings of euphoria, allowing users to escape their issues instead of dealing with them.

The chemicals in the brain that cause these feelings can become depleted after a certain length of time. Benzodiazepines also slow down the central nervous system, which leads to worsening symptoms like memory loss and dementia.

Pregnancy Side Effects

Women who take benzodiazepines during pregnancy are at a higher risk of having a child born with malformations or developmental problems.

It’s also been shown that children of mothers who took benzodiazepines during their first trimester have an increased chance of delayed development and, later, hyperactivity and emotional problems.

Benzodiazepine use by pregnant women has been associated with birth defects such as cleft palate. It may cause physical deformities in the newborn due to its influence on neurodevelopment.

In recent years, it’s become more common to see prescriptions written for other addictive drugs like OxyContin (oxycodone) or Vicodin (hydrocodone/acetaminophen) instead of benzodiazepine prescriptions.

This is because, in the 1970s and 1980s, benzodiazepines were recommended for short-term treatment and considered safe and effective in helping people cope with their anxiety or other mental health problems.

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Neonatal Side Effects

Benzodiazepines may pass into breastmilk and cause sedation, feeding difficulties, and weight loss in infants. They also interfere with the production of breast milk.

A study found that mothers taking benzodiazepines were 3 times more likely to have an infant with delayed motor development than non-users. A second study showed that 6-month-old infants whose mothers had taken these drugs in the past month were more than twice as likely to need intensive care after birth.

Babies exposed prenatally may have a higher risk of developing symptoms similar to those seen in adults with long-term exposure to benzodiazepines, such as low muscle tone and breathing difficulty. 

Effects on the Elderly

Benzodiazepines are recognized as potentially dangerous for elderly people, who are more sensitive to the effects of these drugs. These include cognitive impairment, falls and fractures, confusion, impaired motor function, worsening of underlying medical conditions, and central nervous system depression, leading to death after overdose.

Tolerance also forms much faster in older users, and this means they have to take higher doses to achieve the same effect as younger people taking lower doses. They may experience withdrawal symptoms sooner than expected if the dosage is abruptly reduced or they stop the absorption of the drug altogether.

Adverse side-effects increase with age due to greater susceptibility to toxicity at each stage of life from fetal development through old age.

Overdose is also more likely in the elderly. High doses of benzodiazepines (especially when taken with other drugs or alcohol) suppress breathing and lower the heart rate, so even a non-toxic dose can cause death by overdose if taken on its own.  

Life-threatening Risks

Over the last few decades, we’ve learned much more about these drugs and their effects on brain chemistry. We now know that benzos can be habit-forming and cause tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms.

Benzodiazepines can also slow breathing and lead to complications such as pneumonia, which puts users at risk of hospitalization or even death from respiratory depression.

Additionally, these medications can cause falls and fractures (dizziness and drowsiness) and contribute to confusion or memory loss.

How to Wean Yourself Off Benzos

Tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms can develop with the long-term use of benzodiazepines. Withdrawal symptoms will occur if you stop taking this medication after using it for more than a few weeks. Some people may also find that they need to keep increasing the dose of this medication over the period to get the same effect.

If you need higher doses or more frequent doses than recommended, talk with your doctor about reducing the dose and possibly using another treatment for your anxiety symptoms.

You can also try using exercise, breathing retraining, and meditation instead of benzos to manage your anxiety.

Conclusion

Benzos are addictive drugs that can be extremely dangerous if not used properly. If you are concerned that you or your loved one may have developed a benzo addiction, talk to your doctor about treatment options for this potentially life-threatening disorder.