How Do Benzodiazepines Affect The Brain?

When individuals misuse benzodiazepines, use them for an extended period of time, or consume the substances recreationally, the medications can negatively affect the brain. Here's how.

Benzodiazepines are some of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States. When used for a short period of time, these medications, which help treat anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and seizures, have a calming effect on the brain. But when benzodiazepines are consumed for long periods of time, they can actually harm the brain.

Taking benzodiazepines recreationally or in larger doses than prescribed can cause mental confusion, memory issues, permanent brain changes, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Misusing benzodiazepines can also lead to substance abuse challenges. Fortunately, professional treatment programs and behavioral counseling can help treat addiction and heal some of the negative effects that benzodiazepines can have on the brain.

What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are a group of psychoactive drugs used to treat anxiety disorders, insomnia, and seizures. Psychoactive drugs are chemical substances that can change an individual’s mental state by affecting the way the brain and nervous system work. Psychoactive drugs include stimulants, depressants, opioids, hallucinogens, or cannabis. Benzodiazepines are depressants. This means they can change your mental state by slowing down activity in the central nervous system, reducing feelings of tension, and relaxing muscles. This is why they’re highly effective at treating severe anxiety, panic disorders, insomnia, and seizures.

When consumed, benzodiazepines initiate feelings of sedation and hypnosis which relax users. Instead of feeling anxious and panicked, individuals taking benzodiazepines typically feel euphoric. This state of being, which has an overall peaceful effect, compels some individuals to use the drugs more often than prescribed or recreationally. But doing so can lead to dependence and addiction.

Benzodiazepines can be short or long-acting. Short-acting benzodiazepines are quickly processed by the digestive system and eliminated from the body. Also known as “hypnotics,” these benzodiazepines are known for inducing drowsiness or sleep. Because of this, doctors generally prescribe short-acting benzodiazepines as a treatment for insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Longer-acting benzodiazepines remain in the body longer than hypnotics. These medications can stay in the body for several hours before they’re processed and eliminated by the digestive system.

Since longer-acting benzodiazepines, also known as “anxiolytics,” decrease emotional tension or anxiety, doctors prescribe them to relieve anxiety-related conditions and panic disorders.

Both types of benzodiazepines can be misused. Even though benzodiazepines are only supposed to be used for a short period of time such as a few weeks, many people end up using the medications for an extended period of time.

Some of the most commonly prescribed and abused benzodiazepines include:

  • Xanax
  • Klonopin
  • Ativan
  • Valium
  • Restoril
  • Halcion
  • Librium
  • Tranxene
  • Serax

Benzodiazepine misuse and abuse generally happen because of the way the substances affect the brain.

How Benzodiazepines Initially Affect The Brain

Benzodiazepines tranquilize and sedate the brain. In other words, taking this medication slows down activity in the central nervous system. This happens because benzodiazepines increase the amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, in the brain.

GABA is a chemical messenger in the brain that blocks certain chemical signals and slows down nerve impulses throughout the body, inducing a relaxed and calm state of being. GABA can also help individuals control racing thoughts, manage anxious emotions, and regulate rapid, shallow breathing. This can make users feel peaceful, blissful, tranquil, elated, and undisturbed. But when individuals misuse benzodiazepines, use them for an extended period of time, or consume the substances recreationally, the medications can have a negative effect on the brain.

Can Benzodiazepines Damage The Brain?

Excessively using benzodiazepines can harm the brain. In addition to slowing down activity in the central nervous system, GABA also reduces activity in brain regions responsible for rational thought, memory, emotions, and breathing. This means that excessive benzodiazepine use can lead to:

  • Memory challenges
  • Decreased emotional regulation
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Labored breathing

In addition:

Prolonged Benzodiazepine Use Can Lead to Increased Anxiety

As the brain becomes accustomed to increased levels of GABA produced by benzodiazepines, it stops producing GABA on its own. When this happens, users can feel more anxious, stressed, and fearful than they did before taking benzodiazepines. In addition, all the nerves and neurons that were suppressed by the brain’s natural production of GABA are rekindled, which can trigger:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Panic attacks
  • Paranoia
  • Mood swings
  • Hallucinations

Long-term Benzodiazepine Use Can Cause Negative Effects Similar to Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

Even though alcohol and benzodiazepines are different substances, they’re both depressants. This means that alcohol and benzodiazepines affect the brain in similar ways. Alcohol increases GABA sensitivity while stimulating dopamine release and suppressing the effects of glutamate. Because of this, alcohol can cause depression, intoxication, and pleasure simultaneously. Alcohol’s toxicity and depressant effects can damage and kill neurons, causing a condition known as alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD). High doses of benzodiazepine consumed over a long period of time can also cause brain damage similar to that caused by alcohol. The symptoms can include:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Poor judgment
  • Loss of inhibition
  • Difficulty processing new information

Prolonged Benzodiazepine Use Can Increase The Risk Of Dementia

According to a study, using benzodiazepines can lead to a 50 percent increase in the probability of developing dementia later in life. The study followed 1,063 men and women who were dementia free. None of the participants started taking benzodiazepines until the third year of the study. After a 15-year follow-up, 253 cases of dementia were discovered. The study also revealed that withdrawal from benzodiazepines can lead to brain fog and brain “zaps,” or a feeling of electric shocks in the head.

Benzodiazepine Use Can Make Individuals More Vulnerable to Alzheimer’s

Excessive use of benzodiazepines can also lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Data from a study conducted at the University of Bordeaux analyzed long-term benzodiazepine use among 10,000 elderly men and women in Canada. Their study revealed that individuals who had taken benzodiazepines for 6 months or more were 84 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

Individualized Brain-Focused Care

Here at StoneRidge Centers, we believe that the brain is the most important organ in the body. We also know that the brain is delicate and must be cared for. Prolonged use of medicines such as benzodiazepines can negatively affect the brain and cause:

  • Memory problems
  • Headaches
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Addiction

But there’s hope. Our treatment programs combine world-class brain science with compassionate care and we can customize them to fit your specific needs. Benzodiazepines don’t have to continue to negatively affect your life. We can help improve the health of your brain. Let us help you get there. Contact us today to learn more.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

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qEEG/Brain Mapping
Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients' brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.

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Neurofeedback
This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

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Spravato Therapy
We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

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Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

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Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)
Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

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Individual Therapy
Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

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Group/Family Therapy
Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space. .
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