Benzos aka benzodiazepines, are a class of medications that are often prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. Unfortunately, while benzos can be quite helpful at reducing these symptoms, benzos are also one of the most addictive pharmaceuticals prescribed. In this article we are going to discuss the question: How long does it take to get addicted to benzos?
Today you are going to learn that and much more. Topics included in this article:
- How do benzos work?
- What are the different types of benzos and how are they different?
- How long does it take to get addicted to benzos? How long until you’re addicted to Xanax?
- Who is more likely to get addicted to benzos? Am I at risk of addiction?
- Do I have to taper benzos or can I stop them cold-turkey?
- What is Post-Acute Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)?
- How can I avoid or reduce benzo withdrawal?
- Alternatives to benzos: How can I naturally increase my GABA levels?
How do benzos work?
To best understand how benzo addiction happens, who is at risk, how quickly addiction happens and how long it lasts, we first need to understand how benzos work.
The exact mechanism of benzos is not clearly understood, but what we do know is that benzos enhance a neurotransmitter in the brain called Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) (RX List, 2021).
GABA is known as the calming and relaxing neurotransmitter. It works by decreasing activity in your nervous system. When GABA levels rise, you will experience feelings of physical and emotional relaxation and sedation.
What are the different types of benzos and how are they different?
There are many different types of benzos and they all work a bit differently. For today’s purposes, we are going to focus on the four most commonly prescribed benzos.
Long-acting benzos: These tend to take a little longer to take effect but will stay in your system much longer. The effect is a smoother longer sedation instead of spikes and drops of GABA levels. Examples of long-acting benzos are diazepam (Valium), and clonazepam (Klonopin).
Short-acting benzos: This category of benzos tend to kick in fairly quickly and metabolize out of your system in a shorter amount of time. Often people who take these drugs feel a noticeable drop in their symptoms and may take the drugs more frequently. Examples of short-acting benzos are lorazepam (Ativan), and alprazolam (Xanax) (RX List, 2021).
How long does it take to get addicted to benzos?
Generally speaking, the shorter-acting benzos are more addictive than the longer-acting ones. This is because the shorter-acting benzos have a quicker and stronger sedative onset, and a more intense withdrawal or ‘come-down.’
Studies have shown that you can become tolerant to the benzo in just a few days of use and dependent on the drug after a few weeks of use (Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 2021).
Tolerance means that your body is no longer responding the same way to the drug and that you might need a higher dosage in order to experience the same effect. I have seen in my clinical practice that after a few days of use, a benzo should be tapered and not discontinued ‘cold-turkey’ in order to combat symptoms of withdrawal.
Dependence means that your neurochemistry and your body has changed so that it requires the drug (or substance) in order to maintain homeostasis/ balance/ equilibrium. With benzos in particular, after receiving an outside source of GABA stimulation, it downregulates it’s own internal GABA production to compensate. When you cut off that external source, you will experience withdrawal (Crownview co-occuring institute, 2021).
Who is more likely to get addicted to benzos? Am I at risk of addiction?
The short answer is that everyone is different. The longer answer is that there are many variables that go into how quickly you will get addicted to benzodiazepines, some of these include:
Variables related to taking the benzo itself:
- Which benzo are you taking? (Some are more quickly addictive than others.)
- How much of the medication are you taking? High dose? Low dose?
- How long have you been taking benzos?
- How has your dosage changed over time? Have you needed to increase your dosage?
- What is the benzo prescribed for? Situational/ acute symptoms? Chronic symptoms?
- Are you receiving additional treatment to support you while you take the benzo?
- Are you taking any additional medications?
Variables related to your personal and family history:
- Individual body chemistry, metabolism, genetics and epigenetics.
- A personal or family history of addiction (alcohol or drugs)
- A personal or family history of mental health symptoms or disorders
- Personal or family trauma (abuse, neglect, emotional, physical, vicarious)
- History and/ or feelings of isolation or lack of support
- Experience of stress (emotional, economic, interpersonal, physical)
Do I have to taper benzos or can I stop them cold-turkey?
Word of thumb: Always taper your benzos unless you are unable to due to your own unique medical situation.
As discussed, you can become addicted to benzos after just a few days, even if your doctor is prescribing them and says otherwise.
Many clients have called me with severe withdrawal symptoms after their doctors have told them they can stop their benzos cold turkey. For most people (not everyone), this is simply not true.
Unfortunately, because benzos are so habit-forming, it is almost always better to taper.
If you are looking for support with benzo medication tapering, check out these two resources:
- The Medication Tapering Mastery Course (click on the link HERE to learn more): This course will offer you education on when to taper, how to taper, and provide you resources on integrative therapies to help with the taper process. For example, amino acids that work to create a GABA bridge to help counteract benzo withdrawal.
- The Ashton Method for Benzo Tapering (click on the link HERE to access): Dr. Ashton created a schedule for how and when to taper and provided charts for you to share with your prescribing doctor.
What is Post-Acute Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)?
If you do not slowly reduce the dosage of your benzo, you are at a greater risk of withdrawal and some patients develop a condition called ‘Post-Acute Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Syndrome’ (otherwise known as PAWS).
PAWS is diagnosed when someone experiences protracted (longer than usual) symptoms of withdrawal from benzos.
Dr. Ashton has broken benzo withdrawal into several phases which you can learn more about by clicking HERE.
- Acute Withdrawal Phase: Typically symptoms peak around 2 weeks post-withdrawal, and then classic symptoms of withdrawal can last up to 1 month. Examples of symptoms are all those seen in anxiety states (panic, anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, dizziness, muscle jerks and twitches), as well as some less common symptoms that are unique to benzo withdrawal (depersonalization, derealization, hallucinations, hypersensitivity of the nervous system, ear ringing, psychosis and more).
- The next phase is the Protracted Withdrawal Phase: As the symptoms from the acute phase start to slowly reduce, they often do so with two steps forward and one step back. Long-lasting symptoms may include sleeping difficulties, anxiety, depression, cognitive difficulties, digestive disturbances, and other sensory and motor issues.
How can I avoid or reduce benzo withdrawal?
The first step is to be aware of your risk factors for tolerance and dependence. By being aware of the risks and benefits of taking any medication or supplement, you should be informed.
Do your research, talk with your doctor, and make sure you are comfortable and confident with the recommended treatment.
Here are some tips you might consider before taking benzos:
- Avoid short-acting benzos as they tend to be more addictive.
- Try to keep the dosage of the benzo as low as possible.
- Do not use benzos long-term, try to take them as infrequently as possible.
- Always work on the root cause of your symptoms while taking your medications.
- Ask your doctor if there are any interactions with your benzo and other medications you may be taking.
- Consider doing root-cause testing to rule out other causes of your symptoms.
- If you have a history of addiction, it is best to avoid using any benzo medications.
- Rally your supportive resources, friends, family, doctors, counselors and any other helpers that can help you.
Here are some tips you might consider if you are currently taking benzos:
- Ashton recommends slowly switching from a short-acting benzo to a long-acting and then tapering down slowly with the long-acting benzo.
- Use trophorestoratives to heal the brain and counteract side-effects from the benzo. We talk a lot about trophorestoratives in the Medication Tapering Mastery Course.
- Keep your inflammation down: One of the ways benzos work is to reduce inflammation, and so one of the effects of a taper is the rise of inflammation. You can keep inflammation down with certain supplements and by making dietary changes: Eg- low histamine diet, supplementing with anti-inflammatories.
- Use a GABA bridge, Happy Sleepy Powder is my favorite solution for this.
Alternatives to benzos: How can I naturally increase my GABA levels?
There are many natural treatments for anxiety, stress, overwhelm, panic and insomnia that work. There is an abundance of research on all sorts of integrative therapies demonstrating that they are effective.
Oftentimes doctors turn to benzos because they do not have other tools in their toolbox, which leaves the pressure on you to not only get through the day, but be your own integrative practitioner, and that can be totally overwhelming. I get it, and so I have consolidated it all in one place for you, check out the video below to learn more:
Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational video e-courses, books, and exclusive free Facebook group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.