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How Do Benzos Affect Your Brain Chemistry?

Prescription drugs are developed and prescribed to help with specific conditions and treatments, and when used correctly, they are invaluable in helping treat disease and ease pain. One such class of medication is benzodiazepines, which were developed more than 50 years ago as a safer alternative to barbituates.

Benzodiazepines have been widely prescribed to treat many conditions including the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia/sleep disorders,
  • Convulsive disorders
  • Impulse control disorders and
  • Detox from other substances[1]

However, as with any of these, misuse or abuse can lead to dependency, overdose or even death.

How Do Benzodiazines Work?

How Do Benzos Affect Your Brain Chemistry?

Benzodiazines are medications that affect the central nervous system (CNS) and are intended to ease anxiety, acute stress and panic attacks

Benzodiazines are medications that affect the central nervous system (CNS) and are intended to ease anxiety, acute stress and panic attacks. CNS depressants, sometimes referred to as sedatives and tranquilizers, work by slowing brain activity. This is one of the characteristics that makes them useful for treating anxiety and sleep disorders in San Diego, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).[2]

Some of the more common benzodiazines are diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax). The more sedating benzodiazepines, such as triazolam (Halcion) and estazolam (ProSom) are prescribed for short-term treatment of sleep disorders. Usually, benzodiazepines are not prescribed for long-term use because of the risk for developing tolerance, dependence or addiction. It is this risk that makes it so important to follow a physician’s directions and not take more than prescribed or for a longer period of time.

They Are Addictive

Although they are highly effective for their intended uses, these medications must be prescribed with caution because they can be addictive. Now, work by NIDA-funded researchers has established that benzodiazepines cause addiction in a way similar to that of opioids, cannabinoids, as well as the “club drug,” gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB).[3]

Most CNS depressants act on the brain by affecting the neurotransmitter gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA), explains NIDA. “Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that facilitate communication between brain cells. Although the different classes of CNS depressants work in unique ways, it is through their ability to increase GABA—and thereby inhibit brain activity—that they produce a drowsy or calming effect beneficial to those suffering from anxiety or sleep disorders.”[4]

The addictive properties of benzodiazepines, like all substances and processes with risk of addiction, begin innocently enough by giving a person this pleasurable experience in San Diego. This occurs when, after taking the drug, dopamine levels in the brain’s reward area abruptly surge. For a long time, researchers knew how most addictive drugs, but not benzodiazepines, precipitate these surges. A study in Switzerland, reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA),[5] however has now demonstrated that benzodiazepines weaken the influence of a group of cells, called inhibitory interneurons, in the brain’s ventral tegmental area (VTA).

“These neurons normally help prevent excessive dopamine levels by ‘down-regulating’ the firing rates of dopamine-producing neurons,” the scientists found. “Two negatives make a positive, so when benzodiazepines limit the interneurons’ restraining influence, the dopamine-producing neurons release more dopamine.” In other words, those dopamine-producing neurons produced from use of a benzodiazepine that give a good feeling, or high, have nothing to slow them down. When this happens, addiction becomes a real risk.

Other Risks

In addition to addiction, benzodiazepines can sometimes cause other adverse effects, especially if used improperly or in combination with substances like opioid pain relievers or alcohol. A recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)[6] shows that 32 percent of hospital emergency department visits involving benzodiazepines resulted in serious medical outcomes such as hospitalization (or in rare cases death). Also, in emergency department visits involving the use of benzodiazepines in combination with opioid pain relievers the risk of a serious outcome rose to 44 percent and the same percentage for the combined use of benzodiazepines and alcohol. When patients came to the ER after using a combination of benzodiazepines, opioid pain relievers and alcohol, the risk for serious results rose to 50 percent.

It Can Happen to Anyone

During the first few days of taking a prescribed CNS depressant, a person may feel sleepy and uncoordinated, but as the body becomes accustomed to the effects of the drug and tolerance develops, these side effects begin to disappear. If one uses these drugs long term, larger doses may be needed to achieve the therapeutic effects in San Diego. This is how an addiction my creep up on someone.

Continued use can also lead to physical dependence and withdrawal when use is abruptly reduced or stopped, NIDA warns. Because all CNS depressants work by slowing the brain’s activity, when an individual stops taking them, there can be a rebound effect, resulting in seizures or other harmful consequences. Although withdrawal from benzodiazepines can be problematic, it is rarely life threatening, whereas withdrawal from prolonged use of barbiturates can have life-threatening complications.[7]

If you or a loved one in San Diego have been prescribed any type of medication, especially a benzodiazepine, you should be aware of the risks associated with them. If you would like more information, contact our admissions coordinators 24 hours a day, seven days a week at our toll-free helpline. Please call today.

[1] “The Hidden Dangers of Benzodiazepines,” by Christopher Lane, Ph.D., Psychology Today, May 22, 2014, Includes an easy to understand infographic.

[2] “What are CNS Depressants?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, updated November 2014,

[3] “Well-Known Mechanism Underlies Benzodiazepines’ Addictive Properties,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, updated April 2012,

[4] “How do CNS depressants affect the brain and body?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, April 19, 2012,

[5] “Well-Known Mechanism Underlies Benzodiazepines’ Addictive Properties,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, updated April 2012,

[6] “Combining benzodiazepines with other substances raises risks,” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), Dec. 18, 2014,

[7] “What are the possible consequences of CNS depressant use and abuse?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, updated November 2014,