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Benzodiazepines

Tremendous numbers of people suffer from insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Millions become addicted to alcohol and illicit drugs. Millions more have come to rely on prescription medications.

Psychoactive medications are a multi-billion dollar industry both for pharmaceutical companies and the physicians who prescribe them. They are generally considered to be safe because physicians wouldn’t engage in practices that are unsafe.

People have come to accept that these problems are diseases of a sort, and the cure is medicine. Benzodiazepines, commonly called benzos, are a class of drugs commonly prescribed for insomnia and anxiety. The first were Librium and Valium. Others incude Klonopin, Ativan, Xanax, and many others. Lunesta and Ambien are closely related.

The general description of benzos, their use, effects and risks provided by the pharmaceutical industry is summed up in the following entry from Wikipedia. I’ve slightly edited it and added the bold emphases.

Benzodiazepines possess sedative, hypnotic, anxiolytic, anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant, and amnesic actions, which are useful in a variety of indications such as alcohol dependence, seizures, anxiety, panic, agitation and insomnia….

In general, benzodiazepines are safe and effective in the short term, although cognitive impairments and paradoxical effects such as aggression or behavioral disinhibition occasionally occur. Long-term use is controversial due to concerns about adverse psychological and physical effects, increased questioning of effectiveness and because benzodiazepines are prone to cause tolerance, physical dependence, and, upon cessation of use, a withdrawal syndrome.

Due to adverse effects associated with the long-term use of benzodiazepines, withdrawal from benzodiazepines, in general, leads to improved physical and mental health. The elderly are at an increased risk of suffering from both short- and long-term adverse effects.

There is controversy concerning the safety of benzodiazepines in pregnancy. Uncertainty remains as to … whether neurobehavioural effects occur as a result of prenatal exposure; they are known to cause withdrawal symptoms in the newborn.

Benzodiazepines can be taken in overdoses and can cause dangerous deep unconsciousness…. When combined with other central nervous system depressants such as alcohol and opiates, the potential for toxicity increases. Benzodiazepines are commonly misused and taken in combination with other drugs of abuse.

These factors, combined with other possible secondary effects after prolonged use such as psychomotor, cognitive, or memory impairments, limit their long-term applicability. The effects of long-term use or misuse include the tendency to cause or worsen cognitive deficits, depression and anxiety.

OK, how do we understand this? Benzos are ‘safe and effective’ except really not. Physicians are instructed to tell patients not to use them continuously for more than three weeks, but at the end of three weeks the patient has the same problem and it may have gotten worse. Very few physicians actually provide this warning and few patients discontinue use this quickly.

Longer term use (more than a few weeks) can result in “tolerance” – meaning you need to keep increasing the dose, “physical dependence” – which means you’re very uncomfortable without it, and “withdrawal syndrome”, i.e. it’s really hard to get off. There is actually a word for this: “addiction”, but you will never hear this.

What else? They’re commonly abused, they’re very risky for the elderly and pregnant women, they frequently have negative medical, behavioral and psychological side effects, and perhaps most important, long term use is almost certain to leave you worse off than when you started, with regard to the symptoms you began with, and very likely with new problems you didn’t have before.

Considering all this, you’d think the medical profession would be doing everything it could to avoid prescribing these medications, and would do so only in the most extreme cases and with the most severe of warnings. You’d think the government would be funding research to find safe alternatives for treatment of anxiety and insomnia.

Nevertheless, millions of people, with the help of their physician and the pharmaceutical companies, are addicted, er, I mean dependent on these drugs.

I single these out because of all the medications whose effects I see in my practice, these appear to be the most pernicious. 1) people become seriously addicted with almost no hope of getting off the drug; 2) they alter the nervous system to the point that alternative methods, such as neurofeedback, are ineffective; 3) long term use causes lasting damage to the nervous system; and 4) they are prescribed for disorders that are easily, effectively and safely treated with neurofeedback.

Getting off benzos

I have witnessed that many people, including educated professionals, have a deep psychological attachment to their benzo. It provides security, kind of like a teddy bear or a special nighttime friend. Many people don’t want to give this up. Many people with busy lives – they’re parents, they work – simply don’t have the time and space to deal with getting off these drugs – the withdrawal symptoms, the severe insomnia.

Nevertheless, for those wanting to free themselves from this dependency and heal their nervous system, it can be done.

1. As with any addiction you have to make a firm and clear decision that you want this out of your life, you want to heal and move on. You have to believe it’s possible and you can be healthier.

2. Find a physician who knows about the use of anticonvulsant medications in benzodiazepine withdrawal or educate your own physician about this. You can google this and get lots of information yourself. This protocol can reduce the time it takes to get the benzos out of your system from 3-6 months to just a few weeks.

3. Take nutritional supplements to heal and restore proper neurotransmitter metabolism. This includes magnesium and zinc, vitamins B6 and B12 (preferably in co-enzyme form as P-5-P and methylcobalamin respectively). Omega-3 from fish oil should be taken in sufficient amounts – about 3 gm a day – this is nine large capsules or one Tbsp. This helps calm and modulate the electrical activity of the nervous system. Vitamin D in sufficient quantities is important especially in winter. Make sure your diet includes sufficient protein and that you are digesting it adequately. If you are not sure about this, take an amino acid supplement between meals. Proteins, amino acids, are the building blocks for neurotransmitters.

Neurofeedback

I find that people taking full doses of benzos every night or almost every night usually don’t respond to neurofeedback. A few sessions may produce results, but they are quickly lost. People taking a very low dose of a short-acting benzo like Xanax may respond positively, and then the NF can help them to discontinue the medication.

However, when people have begun the withdrawal process, neurofeedback can be very helpful in reducing adverse effects of withdrawal, healing the effects of the medication, and in reducing or eliminating the anxiety and insomnia that led to use of the medication in the first place.