Xanax could be driving America’s next drug epidemic: Top psychiatrist warns addictive anti-anxiety meds are being dished out like opioids were in the 90s – and patients are struggling to quit
- Opioid prescriptions peaked in 2012. But the rate of benzodiazepine prescriptions climbed 67 percent between 1996 and 2013
- Dr Anna Lembke of Stanford warns she has seen a spike in patients addicted to anti-anxiety medications
- The rate of deaths from people taking opioids and benzos together has gone up seven-fold since 1999
- Dr Lembke warns: ‘Unfortunately, when it comes to the brain, there’s no such thing as a free snack.’
America is on track for an epidemic of addiction and overdoses from anti-anxiety medication, a top clinician warns.
With the nation’s attention on prescription painkillers, there has been scant conversation about the climbing rate of people being prescribed benzodiazepines, potent drugs like Xanax and Valium designed to alleviate anxiety and panic attacks on a short term basis.
Dr Anna Lembke, a psychiatry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and author of Drug Dealer MD, warns ‘benzos’ are being consumed and distributed in a way that eerily echoes the lead-up to the opioid epidemic.
Crucially, she warns, more and more patients are finding it impossible to reduce their dose or quit the drugs even after one prescription, paving the way to either an excruciating battle with withdrawal symptoms or a lifetime of addiction.
Dr Lembke – like many others – has long been concerned about the potent effects of benzodiazepines. Even in the 1960s there were research papers warning ‘mother’s little helper’ (as Valium was sweetly dubbed) could sew the seeds for severe cognitive damage or even Alzheimer’s.
But it wasn’t until 2015 that she began to feel we could be reached a critical point with fatal implications.
‘I started to see that, two or three years ago, more and more patients were coming in to my office seeking help specifically to get off benzodiazepines – all prescribed to them by a well-intended doctor,’ Dr Lembke told DailyMail.com.
‘In many cases they had no history of addiction, but found themselves utterly incapable of even decreasing their doses a bit. Even reducing it a little bit they had these incredible withdrawal symptoms that were just unbearable.’
She was also seeing patients who had managed to reduce their doses of get off but were left with tremors and full-body twitching, which they directly attributed to going on the benzodiazepines (‘these are the so-called “benzo survivors” who feel they have been harmed by going on them and struggling to get off’).
They really do work very well short-term – like nothing elseDr Anna Lembke, psychiatry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine; author of Drug Dealer MD
The other worrisome group is a completely new thing for Dr Lembke: ‘I only really began to see this in the last two years: young people experimenting with novel highs, getting benzodiazepines online using bitcoin.’ One of her patients got clonazolam online. Clonazolam is an incredibly potent mix of Klonopin and Xanax. Anything more than a millionth of a gram could be lethal.
Crunching the data in a recent paper, Dr Lembke saw a clear trend.
The rate of benzodiazepine prescriptions climbed 67 percent between 1996 and 2013 – up from 8.1 million to 13.5 million. In 2016, Xanax, Desyrel and Ativan were all in the top 10 of the most-prescribed psychiatric medications (second, sixth and ninth, respectively).
This uptick has proved particularly dangerous in tandem with the opioid epidemic. Millions of people have been mixing the two – whether on purpose or unwittingly – with devastating consequences. When taking benzodiazepines and opioids together, a person’s overdose risk quadruples. Since 1999, the rate of people dying of such a combination has increased seven-fold.
But the problem is, anxiety is on the rise, and benzos work – really well.
They were created somewhat accidentally in 1955, when Polish chemist Leo Sternbach, then working in New Jersey, was trying to create a less addictive form of the sedative barbiturate.
One of his failed attempts was proved to target a type of neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) which dampens nerve activity.
Since studies had shown anxiety and depression to be the result of hyperactive nerve function, he and his colleagues saw potential for a new class of drugs.
And it took off with resounding success.
While the best long-term control of anxiety comes in the form of behavioral therapy or a low dose of antidepressants, benzos offer almost instant relief.
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