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Look Out: Could Benzos Be the Next U.S. Drug Epidemic?

The number of benzodiazepines prescribed to Americans has more than tripled since the 1990s.

The number of benzodiazepines prescribed to Americans has more than tripled since the 1990s.

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Commonly prescribed for anxiety and insomnia, benzodiazepines — such as Valium, Klonopin, and Xanax — are under scrutiny as an increasing number of Americans are becoming dependent on them. Some critics warn that the overuse of benzos could be our next drug epidemic. 

Benzodiazepines work by depressing the central nervous system. They slow brain activity related to anxiety and stress, which in turn promotes feelings of calm, relaxation, and aid sleep. However, benzodiazepine use is a serious problem in the United States and public health officials are warning of the potential danger.  

The Dangers of Benzos

Chief of Addiction Medicine and researcher at Stanford University Medical Center, Dr. Anna Lembke has spoken of her concerns about benzodiazepine prescribing, “Doctors also tend to overestimate the benefits. Long-term use can make insomnia, mood, and anxiety worse.” 

These medications are supposed to be prescribed in low doses and for short periods of time, due to risk of “dependence, addiction, cognitive damage, more falls, and death,” Lembke says.  

A recent study found that the number of benzodiazepines prescribed to Americans has more than tripled since the mid-1990s. Between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults filling a benzodiazepine prescription increased 67 percent, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million. 

Lembke warns that doctors need to use more caution with prescribing, “One of the silver linings of the opioid epidemic has been that the medical community has recognized that we have to educate doctors better about opioids and their risks, but we’re still not doing that for benzodiazepines.”

In Defense of These Medications

A group of independent scientists, clinical researchers and pharmacologists have formed the International Task Force of Benzodiazepines, with the goal of addressing the — what they consider to be — excessively negative trend in criticizing the use of these medications.

They plan to extensively and scientifically review benzodiazepines and present evidence-based, balanced, unbiased, and clinically relevant information to various psychiatric and medical audiences. While they have the goal of providing accurate information, they “hope to preserve benzodiazepines” as part of their resources. Interestingly three of their authors have disclosed that they have either consulted with, or received support from, drug companies.  

Lembke and other doctors do acknowledge that while benzodiazepines can be useful, they should only be used in the short-term, of two to four weeks.

The reality is that medications do not solve psychiatric problems and continued use will result in dependence and even more severe consequences. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that benzodiazepine-related deaths have quadrupled since 2002, reporting a total of 10,684 deaths in 2016. It is no wonder doctors are concerned.

Additional Reading:  How Worried Should We Be About Benzos?

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