Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs designed to alleviate symptoms of anxiety. Introduced in the mid-1950s, “benzos” were originally intended to take the place of highly addictive barbiturates. However, decades of research have revealed that benzodiazepines can be just as habit-forming as the drugs they were meant to replace. The addictive potential of benzos lies in their method of action. Like opioids, cannabinoids, and other drugs, this medication can wreak havoc on a person’s dopamine levels. The outcome? A severe substance use disorder.
No discussion of addiction is complete without mention of dopamine. It’s the “feel-good” neurotransmitter responsible for motivation, elation, and pleasure. Plenty of everyday things can trigger a dopamine rush: achievement, buying a new item, and watching your team win a playoff game are good examples.
Those euphoric feelings are used for learning and reinforcement of behavior. Put simply, when dopamine is produced, you get an urge to repeat the behavior that caused that rush. According to research featured in Harvard Health Publishing, dopamine is responsible for:
- The function of your heart, kidneys, and blood vessels;
- Attention; and
- Processing pain.
Dopamine is produced near the base of the brain through a two-step process. Tyrosine, an amino acid, is converted to L-dopa. L-dopa is then enzymatically modified, which results in the creation of standard-issue dopamine. However, this process is easily disrupted by external factors, including the consumption of benzodiazepines.
How Do Benzodiazepines Affect Dopamine Levels?
Researchers have found that medications like Valium and Xanax interact with alpha-1 GABAA receptors. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter – it blocks interactions between nerve cells in one’s brain. When benzodiazepines affect these receptors, they prevent inhibitory interneurons from releasing GABA into dopaminergic neurons. This sounds complicated, but the result is simple: with less GABA in your brain, dopamine production increases.
A Clear Path to Addiction
Dopamine surges only last for a limited amount of time, but these recurring events can create structural changes to the brain. If you misuse benzodiazepines for months or years, your body will acclimate to a certain level of dopamine. As a result, you’ll need to take more and more of your medication to achieve the same effects. This is referred to as a change in one’s tolerance.
For the same reason, your body will also stop producing dopamine at its original levels on its own. It relies on the benzodiazepines to do this instead. Without the drug, your dopamine levels will be much lower than they should. This is why people who suddenly discontinue medications suffer from withdrawal symptoms. It is important to note that over time, people who stop taking drugs will find that their bodies return to normal levels of dopamine production without the use of medications.
With this neurological perspective, it is easy to understand exactly why benzodiazepines are so addictive. Once someone begins taking these drugs regularly, he may notice unexpected side effects: euphoria, elevated mood, and a reduction in anxiety. To increase these effects, he may take twice as many pills as his doctor has recommended. Once he acclimates to that dose, he might feel the need to take increasingly more benzodiazepines to get the same effect. If he becomes concerned about his substance use and tries to cut back, severe withdrawal symptoms may motivate him to take these drugs again. Fortunately, with proper care, it is possible to overcome the dopamine cravings that perpetuate such a substance use disorder.
Treatment for Benzodiazepine Addiction
To recover from an addiction to benzodiazepines, high-quality care is extremely important. Attempting to quit using on your own isn’t just difficult – it can be downright dangerous. Abrupt benzo cessation is uncomfortable and potentially life-threatening. Long-term use of these drugs results in severe withdrawal, which is associated with vomiting, sleep disturbances, heart palpitations, and muscle tremors. However, some people may also experience seizures and psychotic episodes during the process of at-home detox. This is why medical professionals recommend seeking qualified addiction treatment at an accredited facility.
Have you developed a dependency on prescription drugs? Change is just one call away.
At The Last Resort, we understand benzodiazepine addiction and how it has affected your life. Through a combination of evidence-based interventions and one-on-one care, we offer an unparalleled men’s-only treatment experience in the heart of Austin, Texas. Our team members are compassionate, understanding, and truly supportive. To learn more about our approach to recovery, contact our admissions team.