Benzodiazepines (also known as benzos) are sedatives which are most often prescribed to treat anxiety, stress and insomnia. Benzos are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the UK despite having a high potential for abuse and addiction. The substance most commonly abused in combination with benzodiazepines is alcohol. Consuming benzos with alcohol can be extremely dangerous, as the effects of both substances are intensified. As central nervous system depressants, both alcohol and benzodiazepines slow heart rate and breathing. Combining the two substances, particularly in high quantities can result in a coma, overdose and even death. Understanding how both substances work, and the effects that they have on your body can help avoid risky consumption and potentially fatal overdose.
What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are a type of central nervous system depressant that have a sedative effect on the central nervous system. Benzodiazepines and other types of central nervous system depressants cause the brain and body to slow down.
They are often prescribed to treat anxiety disorders, insomnia, and mental health disorders such as depression, in order to alleviate some of the symptoms and help people to relax.
Benzodiazepines essentially increase the effects of the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors contained within a person’s brain. This means that people will feel more relaxed, experiencing a decrease in their feelings of anxiety, and they may also feel tired and calmer as a result.
What Is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a form of psychoactive drug that produces a depressant effect on users, and it can elicit many different feelings. Alcohol can reduce inhibitions and produce feelings of relaxation and confidence for some, others often become excitable and full of energy whereas some people may be prone to violent or aggressive behaviour when drinking alcohol.
Mixing Benzodiazepines and Alcohol
Benzos and alcohol are both depressant drugs that have what is known as a synergistic effect on the brain, specifically within the central nervous system. Due to the fact that both drugs are central nervous system depressants, the sedative effects are intensified. This presents an increased risk of dangerous and potentially fatal consequences when alcohol and benzos are combined.
In addition, combining benzos and alcohol increases the risk of memory loss and an overall inability to recall what you have done. High doses of both drugs may also result in people experiencing frequent mood swings, behavioural shifts, and other dangerous symptoms.
Users may also experience blackouts, in which they are unaware of their behaviour, and this could potentially put their lives at risk. Mixing the two substances can generally cause significant problems for a person in terms of their everyday functioning and overall life satisfaction.
The psychological and physical dependence that a person can develop to a particular drug may cause them to start prioritising the drug over basic needs, such as eating and sleeping. This is where addiction can reach its most dangerous point, as the user starts to neglect basic self-care and becomes disconnected from their friends and family.
The Side Effects of Benzo And Alcohol Abuse
The side effects of benzodiazepines and alcohol include:
- Feelings of confusion
- Extreme drowsiness
- Poor coordination
- Slurred speech
- Dry mouth
- Blurred vision
- Concentration problems
- Lower body temperature
- Falling unconscious
- Increased blood pressure
- Muscle weakness
- Respiratory depression
When a person engages in frequent heavy drinking sessions, they can experience alcohol poisoning. The side effects of which may include:
- A lower body temperature (which could lead to hyperthermia)
- Breathing difficulties
- Pale skin
- Falling in and out of consciousness
- Death as a result of intoxication
The Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol And Benzo Abuse
The long-term dangers of alcohol use disorder include:
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Damage to the brain tissue
- Heart disease
- Irregular heartbeat
- Cancer in various parts of the body
- Liver disease
The long-term side effects of benzodiazepine abuse may include:
- Frequent headaches
- Problems with urination
- Changes in libido
- Frequent tremors (shakes)
- Lower blood pressure
- The development of various blood disorders
What To Do In The Event Of An Overdose
Combining alcohol and benzodiazepines significantly increased the risk of overdose. The best immediate course of action in the event of a drug overdose is to call 999 and request immediate medical assistance. Any information that can be communicated over the phone relating to drug abuse could also potentially save the person’s life, and the medical professionals on the phone can communicate instructions that may also save the person’s life.
Getting Help With Addiction Treatment
There is a range of different treatment options to help people overcome addiction to benzodiazepines and alcohol, as well as other substance use disorders. Care can be personalised to individual circumstances to support the person in the best way possible as they regain control of their lives.
The first stage in the treatment process at an alcohol rehab centre or a general residential treatment centre is the detoxification process. This is the process of allowing all traces of a substance to leave the body and often causes a series of predictable withdrawal symptoms as the body adapts to functioning without the presence of the drug.
Detox For Benzos and Alcohol
In relation to benzodiazepine and alcohol detox, an individual should undergo a medically-assisted detox, to best ensure their safety and to enable their body to slowly adapt to the absence of each drug and to allow the withdrawal symptoms to be managed effectively.
During medical detox, trained medical professionals are available throughout the process to closely monitor your progress.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
When a person begins the detox process, they will experience a predictable set of symptoms called withdrawal symptoms. The intensity of these will vary depending on a range of factors including body type, genetics as well and the intensity and duration of substance abuse. Withdrawal symptoms during alcohol detox can be incredibly dangerous, so medical supervision is always recommended.
The initial symptoms may include:
After more time has passed, the user may experience hallucinations and delusions, as well as a fever, higher blood pressure, confusion, and a pounding heartbeat.
Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms
The initial withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepines may include experiencing:
- Muscle cramps in the body
- Frequent headaches
- A loss of appetite or shifts in appetite
- Increased sensitivity to light
- General memory impairment
- Panic attacks
- General problems with sleep
- Difficulties concentrating
- Significant weight loss
The more severe negative effects of withdrawal may include:
- Muscle twitching
- Feelings of confusion
- Burning sensations
- High blood pressure
Substance Use Disorder Treatment
Detox itself is rarely enough to result in long-lasting sobriety. Individuals who struggle with benzodiazepine addiction often suffer from co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. It is common for people who were once prescribed a drug to develop a dependence as their tolerance builds, meaning a higher dose is required to feel the same effects. They may self-medicate – taking benzodiazepines in addition to alcohol to experience these relaxing effects – without realising the danger of both addiction and fatal side effects. In cases of co-occurring mental health conditions, therapy is widely accepted to be the best option after detoxification. In order to overcome the addiction, it is often necessary to address the root cause of substance misuse, whether this is physical or mental pain.
Some people opt for inpatient treatment after their medical detox, where they stay at a treatment facility. Inpatient rehab centres offer 24/7 medical supervision, access to prescription drugs when necessary, as well as other useful resources that can help to guide you through the recovery process.
Others may prefer outpatient options where they can receive therapy without a heavy impact on their daily schedule. The benefit here is that you have more flexibility in your treatment plan and schedule, preventing the treatment from interfering or conflicting with your work commitments, family commitments, and other life commitments.
Therapy and Counselling for Substance Abuse
There are various forms of therapy that can help you achieve long-term recovery and lasting sobriety. The best modality for you depends on the underlying causes of the substance abuse. Talking therapies can help you identify key challenges or behaviours in your life that have contributed to your dangerous drug use. Working through these challenges can reduce the chances of you relapsing and mixing benzos with other substances in the future.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an effective way of helping you identify harmful behaviours and thought patterns. CBT aims to help people deal with ongoing problems and triggers they are likely to face on a daily basis.
- Trauma-focused therapy- unlike CBT, trauma therapies also focus on the past, identifying traumatic experiences in your life that may have led to alcohol consumption as a coping mechanism. It is estimated over 70% of people will experience a traumatic event in their life, which can have a profound effect on both physical and mental health. Trauma can contribute to the development of addiction, and specific treatment plans are available to help you overcome addiction while dealing with past trauma.
There are a range of other therapeutic approaches available including support groups, counselling sessions, and programmes such as the 12-step programme. Healthcare professionals can help you identify the best approach for you.
If you or someone you know is suffering from alcohol or benzodiazepine addiction, help is at hand. Contact us at Revoke Programme to see how we can assist you on your recovery journey.