It Takes Away Your Soul

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In case you missed it in July, there was an annual day of awareness … for the problems that result from the prescription and use of benzodiazepines. World Benzodiazepine Awareness Day (W-BAD) is on July 11th. The first W-BAD was in 2016, so it’s just getting started. The need for greater awareness of the adverse effects from benzos can be seen in the 2016 W-BAD promotional video, here. It’s over 24 minutes long, so be prepared to spend some time. If that’s too much time for you to take at the moment, here’s one take away quote from Wendy in Melbourne Australia about her experiences while on and then getting off of benzos: “It takes away your soul.”

I was pleasantly surprised to see an extended quote on the dangers of benzodiazepines from Dr. Neil Capretto was used in the 2016 W-BAD video. Dr. Capretto is the Medical Director for Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a drug and alcohol treatment program I’m familiar with in Western Pennsylvania, Dr. Capretto said:

People were innocently put on this medication [benzodiazepines] and in some instances it works out well. [But] there is a significant risk and we see it all of the time. Many people who have lost many years of their lives, who have lost jobs, been on the verge of suicide. I’m aware of cases where people have committed suicide. The drug can be dangerous, it can be fatal. During withdrawal the heart rate can go up, they may have a seizure, sometimes the body temperature can go up and in some cases it’s fatal.

The W-BAD video has individuals from around the world, telling about their experiences while using benzos, when tapering off them, and the ongoing protracted withdrawal experiences they suffered through. For some individuals, those adverse effects lasted months and in some cases were permanent. There were three W-BAD objective listed towards the end if the video, which are listed below.

To encourage the establishment of a mandatory maximum prescribing period of no more than 4 week, including taper period (based on the Committee on Safety of Medicines’ 2-4 week prescribing guidelines).

To encourage the establishment of ‘specialized’ withdrawal facilities for those who so desperately need them.

To encourage the provision of proper training for doctors and medical staff and to help them learn more about proper tapering practices to discontinue the drugs as well as about the serious implications of benzodiazepines.

The Committee on Safety of Medicines is an independent advisory committee that advises the UK Licensing Authority on the quality and safety of medicines. In 2005 it was replaced by the Commission on Human Medicines, combining the functions of the Committee on Safety of Medicines and the Medicines Commission. The Committee issued guidelines for UK physicians and medical professionals on the use of benzodiazepines in January of 1988. Pause for a minute. These concerns were evident almost thirty years ago.

The original document said there had been concerns regarding benzodiazepine dependence for several years, and cited a British Medical Journal article from 1980 to support the claim. It noted that withdrawal symptoms could include anxiety, confusion, insomnia, depression, and perceptual disorders. These symptoms could occur even when following therapeutic doses over SHORT periods of time (emphasis in the original). “These may sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the symptoms of the original illness.”

They discouraged the use of benzodiazepines to treat insomnia, unless it was severe and subjecting the person to extreme distress. If used, they should be used intermittently. “The use of benzodiazepines to treat short-term ‘mild’ anxiety is inappropriate and unsuitable.” When the anxiety is severe, disabling or subjecting the person to unacceptable distress they can be used for short-term relief—“two to four weeks only.”  The Committee then gave the following quote from the above noted article in the March 29, 1980 issue of the British Medical Journal. The point of all this is these concerns and recommendations with benzodiazepines have been know since the 1980s, but have been largely ignored on a global scale, as illustrated in the 2016 W-BAD video linked above.

The committee further noted that there was little convincing evidence that benzodiazepines were efficacious in the treatment of anxiety after four months’ continuous treatment. It considered that an appropriate warning regarding long-term efficacy be included in the recommendations, particularly in view of the high proportion of patients receiving repeated prescriptions for extended periods of time.It further suggested that patients receiving benzodiazepine therapy be carefully selected and monitored and that prescriptions be limited to short-term use.

Finding a “specialized” withdrawal facility can be difficult. Be careful of what the centers promise and their cost. Do your homework when searching for a “specialized benzodiazepine withdrawal facility.” A mere “benzodiazepine withdrawal facility” search will net multiple residential drug and alcohol treatment centers. Not every person who has been using benzodiazepines long enough to need medical inpatient detoxification support has been abusing benzos, and treatment at a drug and alcohol treatment center is often inappropriate. Plus the withdrawal protocol is often too rapid.

The New Beginnings Recovery Center in North Palm Beach Florida is an example of a treatment program that uses a protracted withdrawal method. I have no experience with their treatment program and can’t endorse it. But what I’ve seen of their methods fits with a patient or client-centered method of withdrawal, which I do think is best with benzodiazepines. Here is a link to the New Beginnings page on their Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Treatment Program. Here is a short YouTube video clip discussing the Heather Ashton Method for benzodiazepine withdrawal used at the New Beginnings Recovery Center.

Going slowly, at a pace controlled by the individual withdrawing from benzos, is the method most likely to produce positive results. It will take several weeks, months, and even in some cases, years. I’ve run across two medical professionals who advocate for this protracted withdrawal method, Dr. Peter Breggin and Dr. Heather Ashton.

I am personally familiar with Dr. Breggin’s work and have read many of his resources, including two that would be helpful for benzodiazepine withdrawal: Your Drug May Be Your Problem and Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal. Start with Your Drug May Be Your Problem for personal information on the process and try Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal for more technical discussions, if that’s needed. Both books discuss withdrawal from multiple classes of psychiatric drugs. There is a YouTube channel for Peter Breggin. He also has his own website with more information at: breggin.com.

The Ashton Protocol, or Ashton Method, is new to me, but from what I’ve reviewed it fits with the protracted withdrawal process I’m familiar with in Dr. Breggin’s material. Here is a YouTube clip, “Dr. Heather Ashton- Benzodiazepine Withdrawal.” You can see several other YouTube videos about her method with a “Dr. Heather Ashton” search on YouTube. Dr. Ashton also wrote “Benzodiazepeines: How They Work and How to Withdraw,” which has become known as “The Ashton Manual.”  A digital copy is available here on benzo.org.uk for free. A printed copy can be ordered.

From the brief review I’ve done so far, it seems likely to be a very helpful resource for individuals looking for assistance in getting off of benzodiazepines. Within a documentary by Shane Kenny, “The Benzodiazepine Medical Disaster,” which is linked below, Dr. Asthton said she wrote the manual for patients who weren’t getting help from the doctors. They seemed to know better what to do than the doctors. “It was for them. And the interesting thing is, although patients from all over the world have snapped it up, doctors still don’t read it.”

Protracted withdrawal will extend far beyond any acute medical withdrawal phase, and ongoing medical and therapeutic support on an outpatient basis is advisable. Getting medical support for protracted benzodiazepine withdrawal as an outpatient could be challenging. You may have to educate a willing physician on the necessity of an extended, rather than a shorter-term withdrawal. You can use the material recommended above from Peter Breggin and Heather Ashton to first educate yourself, and then any physician or psychiatrist willing to work with you on a protracted benzodiazepine withdrawal.

There are also many online information and support groups, such as: benzo.org.uk, which as been around since July of 2000. “Benzo.org.uk is dedicated to sufferers of iatrogenic benzodiazepine tranquilliser addiction.” In addition to the link to The Ashton Manual noted above, it has a wealth of information, including a FAQ document and links to online benzodiazepine withdrawal support groups on a support page. They also called out a specific support group called BenzoBuddies.

BenzoBookReview.com is a website with a list of books on benzodiazepine withdrawal. Information there includes memoirs and how-to guide books, with reviews and summaries of each book. The site is for anyone interested in information about benzodiazepine misuse and how to help benzodiazepine sufferers. That includes their families, doctors, psychologists, psychotherapists, drug counselors, and all professionals.

Other helpful resources include: Benzodiazepine Information Coalition, Beyond Meds, and Mad in America. Search the Mad in America site for “benzodiazepines.” Information on their “Withdrawal Resources” page will include a scientific literature review on withdrawal from benzodiazepines, as well as other classes of psychotropic drugs. Mad in America linked a short video by the group Benzodiazepine Recovery, “Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms” where individuals shared their top three most debilitating benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms.

There are several helpful YouTube resources, such as Benzo Brains, by Jocelyn Pedersen. W-BAD also has a YouTube channel and a website: w-bad.org. Their YouTube channel has a short informational video (almost 3 minutes) on the risks of taking benzodiazepines. Start there to begin the education process with someone.

Look under Resources on w-bad.org for the Documentaries link. You will find information on “As Prescribed” by Holly Hardman, which is in production. Scrolling further down you will see a link to another documentary, “The Benzodiazepine Medical Disaster” by Shane Kenny. It features an in depth interview with Heather Ashton. Also remember what Melanie said about why this information on benzodiazepines is so important: “It takes away your soul.”


Worse Results with Psych Meds

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Psych meds are popular. One in six U.S. adults (16.7% of 242 million) reported filing at least one prescription for a psychiatric medication in 2013. That increased with adults between the ages of 60 and 85, where one in four (25.1%) reported using psych meds. Only 9% of adults between the ages of 18 and 39 reported using one or more psych drugs. Most psychiatric drug use was long-term, meaning patients reported taking these meds for two years or more; 82.9% reported filling 3 or more prescriptions in 2013. “Moreover, use may have been underestimated because prescriptions were self-reported, and our estimates of long-term use were limited to a single year.”

The above findings were reported in a research letter written by Thomas Moore and Donald Mattison in JAMA Internal Medicine. Their findings got a fair amount of media attention, including articles in Live Science (here), The New York Times (here), Mad in America (here), Psychology Today (here) and even Medscape (here).

Moore said the biggest surprise was that 84.3% of all adults using psychiatric medication (34.1 million) reported using these meds long-term, meaning over two years. He said the high rates of long-term use of psych meds raises the need for closer monitoring and a greater awareness of the potential risks.

Both patients and physicians need to periodically reevaluate the continued need for psychiatric drugs. . . This is a safety concern, because 8 of the 10 most widely used drugs have warnings about withdrawal/rebound symptoms, are DEA Schedule IV, or both.

The ten most commonly used psychiatric drugs in ranked order were:

  1. Sertraline (Zoloft, an SSRI antidepressant)
  2. Citalopram (Celexa, an SSRI antidepressant)
  3. Alprazolam (Xanax, a benzodiazepine for anxiety)
  4. Zolpidem tartrate (Ambien, a hypnotic prescribed for sleep)
  5. Fluoxetine (Prozac, an SSRI antidepressant)
  6. Trazodone (an antidepressant often prescribed for sleep)
  7. Clonazepam (Klonopin, a benzodiazepine for anxiety)
  8. Lorazepam (Ativan, a benzodiazepine for anxiety)
  9. Escitalopram (Lexapro, an SSRI antidepressant)
  10. Duloxetine (Cymbalta, an SNRI antidepressant)

Drawing on data from a different source in “Drugs on the Mind” for Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano said the Institute for Healthcare Informatics (IMS) reported there were 4.4 billion prescriptions dispensed in 2015, with total spending on medicines reaching $310 billion. “Over a million of the prescriptions written for a psychiatric drug were to children 5 years of age or younger.” There were 78.7 million people in the U.S. using psychiatric meds. Within this group, 41.2 million were prescribed one or more antidepressants; 36.6 million were given anti-anxiety medications; and 6.8 million were given antipsychotics.

These figures were different than the percentages reported above from the Moore and Mattison study. Moore and Mattison found that 12% (29 million) reported using antidepressants; 8.3% (20 million) reported using anxiolytics and 1.6% (3.9 million) reported using antipsychotics. Their 1 in 6 (16.7%) figure would then be 40.4 million people using at least one psychiatric medication. Regardless of which data source you use, there are millions of U.S. citizens taking at least one psychiatric drug and therefore at risk of experiencing the adverse effects associated with these drug classes.

Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker described how psychiatric drugs seem to be contributing to the rise of disabling mental illness rather than treating those who suffer from it. What follows is a sampling of comments from Anatomy that he made about benzodiazepines (anxiolytics), which are widely used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Whitaker said long-term benzodiazepine use can worsen the very symptoms they are supposed to treat. He cited a French study where 75 percent of long-term benzodiazepine users  “. . . had significant symptomatology, in particular major depressive episodes and generalized anxiety disorder, often with marked severity and disability.”

In addition to causing emotional distress, long-term benzodiazepines usage also leads to cognitive impairment (137). Although it was thirty years ago that governmental review panels in the United States and the United Kingdom concluded that the benzodiazepines shouldn’t be prescribed long-term … the prescribing of benzodiazepines for continual use goes on (147).

In her article for Medscape, Nancy Melville pointed out the CDC found zolpidem (a so-called “Z” drug) was the number one psychiatric linked to emergency department visits. As many as 68% of patients used it long-term, while the drug is only recommended for short-term use. Up to 22% of zolpidem users were also sustained users of opioids.

Among the concerns with antidepressants are that they are not more effective than placebos (see discussions of the research of Irving Kirsch, starting here: “Do No Harm with Antidepressants”). In some cases they contribute to suicidality and violence (see “Psych Drugs and Violence” and “Iatrogenic Gun Violence”) and they have a risk of withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation.

In a systematic review of the literature, Fava et al. concluded that withdrawal symptoms might occur with any SSRI. The duration of treatment could be as short as 2 months. The prevalence of withdrawal was varied; and there was a wide range of symptoms, encompassing both physical and psychological symptoms. The table below, taken from the Fava et al. article, noted various signs and symptoms of SSRI withdrawal.

The withdrawal syndrome will typically appears within a few days of drug discontinuation and last for a few weeks. Yet persistence disturbances as long as a year after discontinuation have been reported. “Such disturbances appear to be quite common on patients’ websites but await adequate exploration in clinical studies.”

Clinicians are familiar with the withdrawal phenomena that may occur from alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, opioids, and stimulants. The results of this review indicate that they need to add SSRI to the list of drugs potentially inducing withdrawal phenomena. The term ‘discontinuation syndrome’ minimizes the vulnerabilities induced by SSRI and should be replaced by ‘withdrawal syndrome’.

Updating his critique of the long-term use of antipsychotics in Anatomy of an Epidemic, Robert Whitaker made his finding available in a paper, “The Case Against Antipsychotics.” There are links to both a slide presentation and a video presentation of the information included in his paper. The breadth of material covered was difficult to summarize or select out some of the more important findings. Instead, we will look at what Whitaker said was the best long-term prospective study of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders done in the U.S. The Harrow study assessed how well an original group of 200 patients were doing at various time intervals from 2 years up until 20 years after their initial hospitalization for schizophrenia. In his paper, Whitaker reviewed the outcome for these patients after 15 and 20 years of follow up.

Harrow discovered that patients not taking medication regularly recovered from their psychotic symptoms over time. Once this occured, “they had very low relapse rates.” Concurrently, patients who remained on medication, regularly remained psychotic—even those who did recover relapsed often. “Harrow’s results provide a clear picture of how antipsychotics worsen psychotic symptoms over the long term.” Medicated patients did worse on every domain that was measured. They were more likely to be anxious; they had worse cognitive functioning; they were less likely to be working; and they had worse global outcomes.

There is one other comparison that can be made. Throughout the study, there were, in essence, four major groups in Harrow’s study: schizophrenia on and off meds, and those with milder psychotic disorders on and off meds. Here is how their outcomes stacked up:

As Whitaker himself noted, his findings have been criticized from several individuals. However, he answered those critiques and demonstrated how they don’t really hold up. Read his paper for more information. But his conclusions about the use of antipsychotic medications are not unique. In the article abstract, for “Should Psychiatrists be More Cautious About the Long-Term Prophylactic Use of Antipsychotics?” Murray et al. said:

Patients who recover from an acute episode of psychosis are frequently prescribed prophylactic antipsychotics for many years, especially if they are diagnosed as having schizophrenia. However, there is a dearth of evidence concerning the long-term effectiveness of this practice, and growing concern over the cumulative effects of antipsychotics on physical health and brain structure. Although controversy remains concerning some of the data, the wise psychiatrist should regularly review the benefit to each patient of continuing prophylactic antipsychotics against the risk of side-effects and loss of effectiveness through the development of supersensitivity of the dopamine D2 receptor. Psychiatrists should work with their patients to slowly reduce the antipsychotic to the lowest dose that prevents the return of distressing symptoms. Up to 40% of those whose psychosis remits after a first episode should be able to achieve a good outcome in the long term either with no antipsychotic medication or with a very low dose.

All three classes of psychiatric medications reviewed here have serious adverse effects that occur with long-term use. In many cases, they lead to a worsening of the very symptoms they were supposed to “treat.” Increasingly, it is being shown that the psychiatric drug treatments are often worse than the “mental illness” they allegedly treat.


Dancing with the Devil

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© choreograph | stockfresh.com

I once knew a woman who had an anxiety disorder. She also abused benzodiazepines. She was able to conjure up a panic attack in a doctor’s office and walk out with a prescription for the benzo of her choice. At one time, she had four concurrent prescriptions for these anti-anxiety medications. Another person I know of has a ten-year history of using benzodiazepines at close to the maximum recommended dose. When he had an unexpected short-term hospital stay, the treating physicians were reluctant to continue prescribing benodiazepines at such a high level while he was in the hospital. When he returned home, in case his medical issue resulted in another unexpected stay, he put together an emergency hospital kit with various things—including extra benzodiazepines.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in April of 2016 found that benzodiazepines were the second most common drug in prescription overdose deaths for 2013. Given the common knowledge of the potential dangers of benzodiazepines and people becoming more aware of opioids, Marcus Bachhuber and a team of researchers thought that their study would show a steady of declining pattern for prescribing benzodiazepines. But they found exactly the opposite. Between 1999 and 2013 there was an increase of 30% among adult Americans who filled a benzodiazepine prescription. In addition, the amount of medication within a prescription doubled over the same time period.

Bachhuber was quoted by CNN as saying the study’s findings were very concerning. The risk of overdose and death from benzodiazepines alone is said to be generally lower in otherwise healthy adults. But in combination with other drugs like alcohol or opioids, they can be lethal.

Future research should examine the roles of these potential mechanisms to identify effective policy interventions to improve benzodiazepine safety. In particular, as underscored by several recent reports, interventions to reduce concurrent use of opioid analgesics or alcohol with benzodiazepines are needed.

The overdose problem with benzos has been overshadowed by the problems with prescription opioids. Writing for CNN, Carina Storrs said: “The current study could help shine a light on the problem of benzodiazepine abuse and overdose.” Dr. Gary Reisfield, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida, referred to the problem with benozdiazepines as a “shadow epidemic”:

Much attention has been paid to the explosion of prescription opioid prescribing and the associated morbidity and mortality. Much less attention has been paid to the shadow epidemic of benzodiazepine prescribing and its consequences.

A 2015 study by Jones and McAninch found that emergency department visits and overdose deaths involving opioids and benzodiazepines increased significantly between 2004 and 2011. Overdose deaths from combining the two classes of drugs rose each year from 18% in 2004 to 31% in 2011. This rate increased faster than the percentages of people filling prescriptions and the quantity of pills in the prescriptions.

As Dr. Indra Cidambi wrote in “Are We Ignoring an Escalating Benzodiazepine Epidemic?”,  she observed with increasing alarm the rising rate of concurrent use/abuse of benzos among opiate users. She pointed to two possible factors driving this trend. First, some opiate abusers use benzos to “spike” the euphoria from their opiates. Second, patients often receive their prescriptions from two different physicians. She said that it is “notoriously difficult” for doctors to refuse to prescribe these two medications.

Unfortunately, and ironically, pain and anxiety are neither verifiable nor quantifiable through medical testing! Consequently, self-reported symptoms by patients are the sole basis on which prescriptions for these medications are written, enabling individuals addicted to these medications to obtain them fairly easily.

Dr. Cidambi recommended the establishment of a national database for physicians to verify whether or not a patient has been prescribed one of these medications before prescribing or filling a prescription for the other. Second, she said physicians should develop limited, short-term treatment plans from the beginning to treat noncancerous pain with opiates and anxiety with benzodiazepines.

Studies have shown the decreasing efficacy of long-term treatment for pain with opioid medications, and evidence-based treatment protocols for benzodiazepines clearly indicate that long-term use of benzodiazepines is not recommended.

In “Benzos: A Dance with the Devil,” Psychiatrist Kelly Brogan described some of her work helping patients taper off of benzodiazepines. A woman who had been placed on Remeron (an antidepressant) and Klonopin (a benzodiazepine) for eight years said of her original prescriber: “He never once told me there might be an issue with taking these meds long-term. In fact, he told me I probably needed them after I tried stopping them cold turkey and felt so sick I thought I was dying.” Brogan said no one ever discussed with this woman or her patients the true risks, benefits and alternatives to psychiatric medications like benzodiazepines, “perhaps because we as clinicians are not told the full story in our training.”

She went on to quote from a paper by another psychiatrist, Peter Breggin, on the risks of benzodiazepines, which include: cognitive dysfunction that can range from short-term memory impairment and confusion to delirium; “disinhibition or loss of impulse control, with violence toward self or others, as well as agitation, psychosis, paranoia and depression.” There can also be severe withdrawal symptoms, ranging from anxiety and insomnia to psychosis and seizures after abruptly stopping long-term larger doses. The person can re-experience their pre-drug symptoms as they taper. These so-called rebound symptoms of anxiety, insomnia and others serious emotional reactions can be more intense than they were before drug treatment began. And don’t forget dependency or abuse.

Psychiatrist Allen Frances, the former chair of the DSM-IV, recently wrote: “Yes, Benzos Are Bad for You.” He introduced his article by saying that he was going to say some very negative things about benzodiazepines in the hope that doctors think twice before prescribing them and patients are discouraged from taking them. Benzos were wonder drugs in the 1960s. Anyone remember the 1966 song, “Mother’s Little Helper,” by the Rolling Stones? These drugs were reputed to be safe, and so were used for a variety of “ills,” such as anxiety, alcohol use disorders (yes, really), to take the edge off of agitation in dementia, and to help people sleep. “Initially we were pretty oblivious to the risk of addiction.” So benzodiazepines quickly became the most prescribed medications in America.

A second craze began in the 1980s with the release of Xanax. Frances said the dose to treat panic disorder was “dangerously close” to the dose leading to addiction. “This should have scared off everyone from using Xanax, but it didn’t.” It remains a best seller, with its own “brand” that now leads to fentanyl be pressed into counterfeit Xanax pills. See “Buyer Beware Drugs” and Paul Gaita’s article on fake Xanax laced with fentanyl.

The real wonder of the benzos is that sales continue to boom, despite their having so little utility and no push from pharma marketeering (because patents have run out – thereby decreasing costs and profits.) Between 1996 and 2013, the percentage of people in the U.S. using benzos jumped more than one-third from an already remarkable 4.1 to 5.6 percent. Especially troubling is that benzo use is ridiculously high (nearly one out of ten) in the elderly, the group most likely to be harmed by them.

Frances said the beneficial uses of benzodiazepines can be counted on the fingers of one hand: short-term agitation in psychosis, mania and depression; catatonia; “as needed” use for times of special stress, like fear of flying, or for sleep. While they should be used very short term, in real life most people take them long term—“in doses high enough to be addicting, and for the wrong reasons. . . . Benzos are very easy to get on, almost impossible to get off.”

In addition to the harm from overdoses, Frances described the painful and dangerous withdrawal symptoms, which he said are a “beast.” Common symptoms are irritability, insomnia, tremors, distractibility, sweating and confusion. “The anxiety and panic experienced by people stopping benzos is usually much worse than the anxiety and panic that initially led to their use.”  Concurrent use or abuse of alcohol or other drugs, like opioids, complicates withdrawal even further.

The most insidious issues with benzos for Frances, is how they effect brain functioning. Especially with the elderly, ongoing benzo use can be devastating. Many elderly begin their downward spiral to death and disability from falls—that happen from their benzo use! He said: “If you meet an elderly patient who seems dopey, confused, has memory loss, slurred speech, and poor balance, your first thought should be benzo side effects — not Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.” See “Sedating Seniors” for more information on this topic. It’s been over 30 years since he last prescribed a benzo for anxiety.

The tough question is what to recommend for those many unfortunates already suffering the tyranny of benzo addiction. Should they stay the course to avoid the rigors and risks of withdrawal or should they make the great effort to detox? This is an individual decision that can’t be forced on someone. But the longer you are on them, the harder it gets to stop, and the cognitive side effects of benzos create more and more dysfunction as your brain ages. The best bet is to stick with a determined effort to detox, however long and difficult, under close medical supervision. On a hopeful note, some of the happiest people I have known are those who have overcome their dependence on benzos.

So it was encouraging to see that the FDA will require class-wide changes in drug labeling to bring attention to the dangers of combining opioids and benzodiazepines. The changes will include boxed warnings on nearly 400 products with information on the risks of combining these medications. The FDA Commissioner, Robert Califf said: “It is nothing short of a public health crisis when you see a substantial increase of avoidable overdose and death related to two widely used drug classes being taken together.” He implored health care professionals to carefully and thoroughly evaluate on a patient-by-patient basis whether the benefits outweigh the risks when using these drug classes together.

Used alone or in conjunction with opiates, benzodiazepines are potentially lethal and addictive. A too sudden withdrawal from benzodiazepines can be fatal, where the same is rarely true with opiates. They work quickly and effectively for anxiety and sleep problems and yet they can have a multitude of side effects, including addiction. Did I say they are addictive? Using benzodiazepines has become a dance with the devil for too many unsuspecting individuals … those that are still alive to regret it, that is.

This article previously appeared on the addiction and recovery website “The Fix” under the title of “Dangerous Dance.”


Sedating Seniors

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© Vera Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova | 123RF.com

In September of 2014, the British Medical Journal published an article titled: “Benzodiazepine use and risk of Alzheimer’s disease.” It received a good bit of public attention because of its conclusion that there was an increased risk of up to 51% of Alzheimer’s disease with the use of benzodiazepines —for as short a period of time as three months. There was concern expressed by Psychiatric News, which quoted Davangeere Devanand, the director of the geriatric psychiatry program at Columbia, who said: “These findings emphasize the importance of restricting the use of benzodiazepines in the elderly population.”

Philip Hickey reviewed the article and noted where the study’s authors commented there findings were congruent with five previous studies. The authors also said their findings were of major importance for public health, particularly considering the widespread chronic use of benzodiazepines with older people. Guy Goodwin, a professor of psychiatry at Oxford, voiced a common assessment of the study, namely that it was more likely that the drugs were being given to people who were already ill. I’ve heard similar comments made by pharmaceutical researchers. This dismissal of the study’s results was despite the fact that the researchers specifically attempted to control for this factor. They said:

Our study was designed specifically to reduce the possibility of reverse causation bias and to provide additional arguments linking benzodiazepine use with Alzheimer’s disease, such as a dose-effect relation.

To a certain extent, this is a rehashing of old news, as I’ve previously addressed the BMJ study in “What a Drag It Is Getting Old.” But the concern over the use of benzos with older people hasn’t gone away. There was an article published in the February 2015 issue of JAMA Psychiatry that looked at “Benzodiazepine Use in the United States.” The article first appeared online in December of 2014. You can watch a short YouTube video by the lead author summarizing the study’s results here.

The study found that about 1 in 20 (5%) people between the ages of 18 and 80 received a benzodiazepine prescription in 2008. However, the percentage increased with age, rising to 8.7% among individuals 65 to 80. Women were twice as likely as men to receive prescriptions in all age groups. Most of the prescriptions—two thirds—were written by non-psychiatrists. For adults 65 to 80, this was 9 out of 10. Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), voiced the following concerns with the NIMH-funded study’s results:

These new data reveal worrisome patterns in the prescribing of benzodiazepines for older adults, and women in particular. . . . This analysis suggests that prescriptions for benzodiazepines in older Americans exceed what research suggests is appropriate and safe.

In a Psychiatric News Alert, one of the study’s authors was quoted as saying that it was alarming to find the highest rates of benzodiazepine use among the groups with the highest risks. “Given that safer, effective options are available for anxiety and insomnia, it’s hard to make a clinical argument for these results.” In an editorial written about the study in JAMA Psychiatry, the authors commented that there seems to be a societal addiction to using benzodiazepines with the elderly. They said these drugs should only be used for very short periods of time. With individuals susceptible to cognitive impairment or to falls and fractures, benzodiazepines should be avoided altogether.

The editorial authors also suggested that prescribing benzodiazepines should be restricted to psychiatrists. Their recommendation was based upon the perception that psychiatrists seemed prescribe them properly in the JAMA Psychiatry study. They further recommended that benzodiazepines be reclassified as a Schedule II Controlled Substance with limited-duration prescriptions and no refills. “Such barriers could help the public and prescribers think more about these risks before prescribing or using benzodiazepines.”

I don’t think limiting the prescription of benzodiazepines to psychiatrists is either practical or realistic. Despite the dangers reviewed here, restricting benzodiazepines, while permitting antidepressants, neuroleptics and mood stabilizers to be prescribed by all medical doctors is nonsensical. All these additional classes of drugs have their own serous side effects. Some are arguably more problematic than benzodiazepines. If only psychiatrists were permitted to prescribe benzos, then pharmaceutical companies would adjust their marketing strategies to concentrate on psychiatrists.

Reclassifying benzodiazepines as Schedule II Controlled Substance has more merit, but will be hard to accomplish. The process to reclassify any prescription drugs is complicated and difficult.

I’m also not convinced that all psychiatrists would be better monitors of benzodiazepine use/abuse. I know of one person whose primary care physician was reluctant to continue a long-term benzodiazepine prescription, but a psychiatrist wasn’t. I know of another individual who has been prescribed daily benzodiazepine use for sleep by a psychiatrist for over two years. My thought is that the more entrenched any medical doctor is within a biological view of psychiatric disorders, the more willing they are to prescribe benzodiazepines long-term.

Sadly, all these concerns with the use of benzodiazepines with the elderly were voiced and know twenty-five years ago. The journal Drug Safety published “Problems and Pitfalls in the Use of Benzodiazepines in the Elderly” by Wolfgang Kruse in its September issue for 1990. Dr. Kruse noted benzodiazepines were frequently prescribed for elderly patients; and that their use was more common with women. Prolonged use was likely for treating not only insomnia and anxiety in the elderly, but also a wide range of nonspecific symptoms. “Long term users are likely to have multiple concomitant physical and psychological health problems.”

He noted that long-term studies on unwanted effects were scarce, but there was some evidence that benzodiazepines were implicated in drug-associated hospital admissions. “There is suggestive evidence that benzodiazepines, especially compounds with long half-lives, may contribute to the falls which are a major health problem in old age.” Prophetically, he stated:

Problems in the use of benzodiazepines will arise if the available knowledge on altered pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics and principal guidelines for drug prescribing in the elderly are neglected. Poor prescribing habits are related mainly to inadequate clinical assessment, excessive prescribing and inadequate supervision of treatment. Unlimited repeat prescribing, particularly for the treatment of sleep disturbances, is seldom justified.


What a Drag It is Getting Old

Things are different today. Grandmother needs something to calm down. Although she’s not really ill, they’ll give her a little yellow pill. And it helps her on her way, and gets her through the day. So she goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper. Four will help her sleep right through the night; and might even help to minimize her plight.

“Doctor please, some more of these
Outside the door, she took four more
What a drag it is getting old.”

Above and below are the chorus and two paraphrases taken from the lyrics of the Rolling Stones 1966 song, “Mother’s Little Helper.” Following the runaway success of the first modern tranquilizer, Miltown, Hoffman-La Roche brought the newest benzodiazepine—Valium to market in 1963 and then targeted women in its advertising. “From 1968 to 1981, it was the best selling drug in the Western world.”

Recently there has been a good bit of press (Science Daily and Web MD and others) on a study published in the British Medical Journal that indicated benzodiazepine (benzo) use was associated with the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A BBC report about the study quoted some Alzheimer’s experts who minimized the study’s findings by saying that it was hard to know the underlying reason for the link.  Other reports, such as that by Paula Span, on her New York Times blog, The New Old Age, noted how the study was designed to reduce the possibility of reverse causation. That is, reverse causation claims the correlation existed because individuals first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s were given benzos afterwards as part of their medical treatment.

Mad in America quoted from the study’s abstract, where the researchers said: “the stronger association [between Alzheimer’s and the use of benzos] observed for long term exposures reinforces the suspicion of a possible association.” The study’s authors further said:

Risk increased with density of exposure and when long acting benzodiazepines were used. Further adjustment on symptoms thought to be potential prodromes [precursors] for dementia—such as depression, anxiety, or sleep disorders—did not meaningfully alter the results.

The results of the study were consistent with five previous studies. It reinforced the suspicion of an increased risk of Alzheimer-like dementia among benzo users, particularly those who are long-term users. Their findings are particularly important when considering the wide spread use of benzos with older people, and the concurrent rise of dementia in developed countries. “Unwarranted long term use of these drugs should be considered as a public health concern.”

A JAMA Internal Medicine article noted that: “The American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation Choosing Wisely Campaign recommends against the use of benzodiazepine drugs for adults 65 years and older.” Paula Span reported in another article that a particular concern with older adults is falls, which are a leading cause of death and disability. The CDC estimated that one out of three older adults over the age of 65 falls each year. “In 2012, 2.4 million falls among older adults were treated in emergency departments and more than 722,000 of these were hospitalized.” Advice for tapering older adults off of benzos and other sleep aids like Ambien is available.  See the Paula Span article, “More on Sleeping Pills and Older Adults,” linked in this paragraph.

Not only are benzos problematic when given to older adults long-term, there is a well-documented concern with any long-term use of this class of drugs. Quoting Dr. Stevan Gressitt, Robert Whitaker indicated in Anatomy of an Epidemic that there was no evidence supporting the long-term use of benzos. Additionally, they could aggravate medical and mental health problems like anxiety, depression, cognitive impairment and functional decline.

Whitaker described a 2004 Australian study that looked at the potential deficits in cognitive functioning after long-term benzo use. The duration of benzo use by the patients in the research studies they looked at ranged from 1 to 34 years. The mean was 9.9 years. They found that long-term benzo users were consistently more impaired across all the cognitive categories examined. “The observation that long-term benzodiazepine use leads to a generalised effect on cognition has numerous implications for the informed and responsible prescription of these drugs.”

Although it was thirty years ago that governmental review panels in the United States and the United Kingdom concluded that the benzodiazepines shouldn’t be prescribed long-term, with dozens of studies subsequently confirming the wisdom of that advice, the prescribing of benzodiazepines for continual use goes on. Indeed, a 2005 study of anxious patients in the New England area found that more than half regularly took a benzodiazepine, and many bipolar patients now take a benzodiazepine as part of a drug cocktail. The scientific evidence just doesn’t seem to affect the prescribing habits of many doctors.” (Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, p. 147)

“Life’s just much too hard today,”
I hear every grandmother say.
The pursuit of happiness just seems a bore
And if you take more of those, you will get an overdose.
No more running for the shelter of a grandmother’s little helper.
They just helped you on your way, towards your busy dying day.


Homegrown Epidemic

The White House reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified prescription drug abuse as an epidemic.  The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that 4.9 million people, 1.9% of the population, abused prescription drugs. Nonmedical use of psychotherapeutics, particularly pain relievers, was the most commonly used illicit substance after marijuana. “In our military, illicit drug use increased from 5% to 12% among active duty service members from 2005 to 2008, primarily due to non-medical use of prescription drugs.” Drug induced deaths have almost doubled since 1999 and are now second only to motor vehicle fatalities.

At the end of 2013, Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (GEN) published a list of the top 17 abused drugs of 2013. The table below combines most of the given statistical information in the list of abused drugs and presented them in rank order, from one to seventeen.

There is no surprise that seven of the listed drugs are either prescribed for some kind of “pain” condition or are opioids (OxyContin, Suboxone, Opana, Fentora [fentanyl], Percocet, Soma, Vicodin). Vicodin is now classified as a schedule 2 controlled substance. Soma is now a schedule 3 controlled substance. Suboxone  (schedule 3) is an opioid approved for opioid drug treatment.

Three of the medications are used to treat ADHD (Concerta, Ritalin, Adderall); all three are in the top 8 most abused drugs. Four of the drugs are benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, Valium; schedule 4).  Two medications are sleep aides (Ambien, Lunesta). One, Zoloft, is an SSRI used to treat depression.



2012 Sales

2011 Sales





2.7 billion

2.8 billion

until 2025




1.4 billion

1.2 billion

until 2020




1.1 billion

1.3 billion



Ambien CR


671 million

661 million

until 2020




554 million

550 million





541 million

573 million





447 million

420 million

until 2014


Adderall XR


429 million

533 million





299 million

384 million

until 2025




274 million

308 million





194 million

211 million





161 million

186 million

until 2019




103 million

104 million





30 million

25 million





27 million

46 million

expired 1/12




8 million

11 million






168 million



Suboxone is likely on the list because of its use by opioid abusers and addicts as a “back up” to forestall withdrawal when the opioids aren’t available. However, along with other opioids it can be combined with benzodiazepines for a heroin-like euphoria. The combination of these two classes of drugs has increasingly become one of the signatures of accidental overdose deaths worldwide. The 2012 NSDUH reported that 4.8% of the population over the age of 12 had used pail relievers illicitly within 30 days of being surveyed.

In their own right, benzodiazepines have a long history of abuse. Valium was the best selling drug in the Western world from 1968 to 1981. It wasn’t until 1975 that the U.S. Justice Department required that benzodiazepines be listed as schedule 4 drugs under the Controlled Substances Act. As Robert Whitaker noted: “This designation limited the number of refills a patient could obtain without a new prescription, and revealed to the public that the government had concluded that benzodiazepines were, in fact, addictive.” The 2012 NSDUH reported that 2.3% of the population over the age of 12 had used tranquilizers illicitly within 30 days of being surveyed.

Attention-deficit disorder did not appear as a “disease” in the Diagnostic and statistical Manual until 1980. In 2007, the CDC reported that one in every twenty-three American children between the ages of four and seventeen is taking an ADHD medication. Concerta, Ritalin and Adderall are all schedule II controlled substances; classified to be as potentially addictive as OxyContin, Opana, Fentara, Percocet, and Vicodin. Concerta and Ritalin are the brand names for the generic drug, methylphenidate.  The 2012 NSDUH reported that 1.3% of the population over the age of 12 had used stimulants illicitly within 30 days of being surveyed.

The medications on the GEN list of abused drugs include some of the most commonly prescribed classes around: drugs for pain relief, anxiety, ADHD, and sleep problems.  The Daily Beast reported that: “The US, which holds 5 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for 75 percent of global prescription drug use.” So the chances that at some time in your life you will be prescribed one of these 17 drugs for a legitimate medical reason is high. Be careful in how you use them and most especially, how long you use them.

Do you think it is overstating the problem to say that prescription drug abuse is an epidemic?