Benzodiazepine and Alcohol

Benzos and Alcohol Abuse Addiction Treatment

Understanding the dangers and finding help for addiction to benzodiazepines and alcohol

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Introduction

You may have been prescribed benzodiazepines, such as Valium or Xanax, for your anxiety or insomnia and are unsure if you can take them and still enjoy a few drinks at the weekend. Perhaps you’re buying the drugs illicitly to help chill you out, but find you’re blacking out after drinking on top.

Whatever your reason for taking benzos, mixing them with alcohol is not advised. While you should not panic if you’ve had a glass of wine during your prescription, excessive use of both substances comes with substantial dangers. 

Summary

  • Benzodiazepines, also known as ‘benzos’, ‘chill pills’, or ‘downers’, are commonly prescribed sedatives taken mainly for anxiety, insomnia, and seizures.
  • The most popular types of benzodiazepines are diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax), and benzos are the common ingredient in many sleeping pills.
  • Although intended for short-term use, benzodiazepines are highly addictive and you can become dependent on them in just days.
  • Alcohol works in the same way as benzodiazepines. Both substances target the central nervous system to slow down essential functions such as thought processes, movement, and breathing.
  • As alcohol and benzodiazepines work in a similar way, taking the two together can double their effects. This means you may be sleepy to the point of unconsciousness or your breathing may slow down to dangerous levels.
  • Having a dual addiction is much harder to manage than one, but it can be done. At Smarmore Castle, we offer personalised treatment to help you kick both substances at once.
Benzodiazepine and Alcohol

Mixing Benzodiazepines and Alcohol ­­– Side Effects and Risks

You may be under the impression that as your benzodiazepines have been prescribed, they’re not as harmful as illegal drugs. And perhaps you don’t think that combining them with alcohol is a problem, especially if you drink responsibly.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Both substances are depressants, calming you down and making you feel chilled, which means they target the same areas in your brain and taken together, have double the effect. So your thought processes might slow down excessively, you may feel tired to the point of unconsciousness or your breathing may slow down to dangerous levels.

Alcohol and benzodiazepines are both highly addictive and you can go from light use to chronic dependency in a short while.

While you should not panic if you’ve accidentally had a drink while taking a benzodiazepine, if you can’t stop drinking on your prescription, you need immediate help as long term-abuse can result in organ damage, coma and even death. 

Effects and Dangers of Combining Benzodiazepines and Alcohol

Benzodiazepines and alcohol are both relaxants. They target the central nervous system and stimulate receptors of the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter which slow down activity in the brain.

If you mix benzos with alcohol you are doubling this sedative effect on your brain, which is responsible for all your essential mental and physical functions. This can result in:

  • Slowing down your thought processes. You may struggle to make a decision, draw on your memory or react quickly. This can affect your ability to look after others safely and it makes you a danger on the road.
  • Reducing your reasoning abilities. Not feeling clearheaded can mean you make poor decisions that could put you in danger. Impaired judgement means you may indulge in risky sex, or the loss of inhibitions may mean you feel invincible and this can result in an accident.
  • Impacting your physical reactions. You may find yourself so unsteady on your feet that not only can you not walk in a straight line, you’re unable to perform certain complex tasks that you previously did as part of your workload. You will not be safe to operate machinery, do intricate work, or drive safely.
  • Increasing the risk of each substance’s side effects. All drugs have side effects so if you take two together, it will double the impact they have on you. This means the confusion, slurred speech, and nausea that are expected side effects of the benzos can be added to the confusion, slurred speech, and nausea you can expect from the drink.  
  • Increasing your risk of overdosing. If you mix benzos and booze, your body metabolises the alcohol first before starting to break down the drugs, and this means the benzodiazepines stay in your system for longer. Taking your regular dose can quickly overwhelm your system as your body hasn’t expelled the last dose. This is why mixing alcohol and benzos can increase the risk of overdose.

Long-term use of benzodiazepines has been linked to an increased risk of dementia, and excessive alcohol intake may amplify this risk. This means mixing the drugs in your younger years could affect you later on.

How Do Benzodiazepine and Alcohol Affect the Body?

Although the side effects of combining benzos with alcohol appear to affect you psychologically, as you feel confused, unsteady and dopey, this toxic mixture can also impact you physically.

Short-term effects of benzodiazepines and alcohol include headaches, slurred speech, poor motor coordination and a dry mouth. These are the early warning signs and it is essential you heed them and find help at this stage.

If you don’t, the effects are much more serious and life-changing. Long-term abuse of both drugs can result in irreversible organ damage:

  • Heart. Benzodiazepines and alcohol both slow down the function of the heart and this can cause blood clots. If these travel to the brain they can increase the risk of stroke.
  • Liver. As little as two drinks a day can lead to liver disease, and alcohol abuse can damage this organ for good. The liver is responsible for breaking all substances down, but a combination of alcohol and benzodiazepines will quickly overwhelm it and make it unable to function properly. The liver is responsible for the body’s immunity, so a damaged liver will reduce your immune system and make you prone to illness.  
  • Kidney. Long-term use of benzos in sleeping pills has been linked to an increase in chronic kidney disease. Add this to the ways alcohol impairs kidney function, affecting the kidneys’ ability to filter blood, and you realise this cocktail has a devastating effect on these vital organs.

Organ damage is not often visible. This means you may not realise the effect on your insides until it is too late and you are hospitalised, fall into a coma or die.

It’s essential that you get help as soon as you realise that you may have a problem. At Smarmore Castle, we are specialists in tackling benzodiazepine addiction. Contact us and you’ll get the right help immediately.

A Slippery Slope?

Benzodiazepines and alcohol are both addictive. This means it doesn’t take long to become dependent on either or both substances and as neither is illegal, this may take you by surprise.

Perhaps you’re concerned about a loved one whose behaviour has changed recently. Maybe you’ve noticed they’re running out of their tablets sooner than they should, are visiting different doctors to get more, or trying to buy them on the internet.

These are all signs that they may have a benzodiazepine addiction, and if they’re still drinking, even if it’s just socially, they need help before it gets too late. Can you speak to them and share your concerns? Offer to come with them to their GP?

You may have been prescribed benzos short-term for anxiety and find that when your dose runs out, your anxiety returns to sky-high levels as the withdrawal symptoms take effect. Panicked, you feel you have no alternative but to reach for them again. You’re hooked.

Speak to your GP to find alternative treatment for your anxiety. Benzos are not always the answer and the journey from initial use to addiction is short.

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Start Your Recovery Journey with Smarmore Castle Clinic

Addiction doesn’t mean rolling around in the gutter. It is when you are no longer in control of a substance but it is in control of you. That point is not always easy to identify, but if you can’t stop thinking about a drug or drink, panic at the thought of not having access to it, and will go to any lengths to get it, you have an addiction.

Sometimes you don’t know you have a problem until it’s too late. If you drink alcohol alongside taking benzodiazepines, you are much more likely (24­–55% more) to become hospitalised than if you were taking each substance on its own.

What Should You Do If You Have Taken Benzodiazepine and Alcohol?

If you’ve come home from a night out, reached for your prescription and only just seen the leaflet’s warning signs to avoid alcohol, don’t panic. A few drinks will not do you long-term damage although you should not attempt to make any big decisions for 72 hours. And don’t drive, even if you are under the limit with alcohol – it is shown that benzo use on its own increases the risk of car accidents.

If you’ve always drunk responsibly and have never had issues with substance abuse, you may not have realised that a couple of glasses of wine at dinner could interact with your prescription and cause you physical and psychological side effects.

But if you’re struggling to stop drinking, even if you feel the amount is nothing to worry about (a glass every evening to wind down, for example), you need to seek help as you are putting your health at risk. Have you asked yourself why you drink? Do you feel it helps with your depression or your stress?

Drinking to help with an existing mental health issue is called having a dual diagnosis and is very common. At Smarmore Castle, we offer a bespoke comprehensive care programme to help unpick and deal with the reasons behind your addiction. This treatment is tailor-made for you. There is no one ‘cure all’ for this as everyone is unique.

If you’ve been hiding an alcohol addiction, or you’ve been continuing to drink alcohol despite being prescribed benzodiazepines, speak to your GP. The sooner you stop taking this toxic combination, the less damage you will inflict on yourself. Being honest with your GP is the first step to finding the right support. 

It could be that you have an alcohol use disorder and have been prescribed benzodiazepines to help with the alcohol withdrawal symptoms, only to find you’ve not been able to kick the booze and now have two addictions instead of one.  It’s not fair but it isn’t insurmountable. You can get clean but you will need professional addiction treatment.

Perhaps you’re chasing that ever-elusive high or trying to chill and have added benzos to your regular cocktail of drinks and drugs. If you’re doing this regularly you need to stop. The longer you delay getting off them, the harder it will be and the more damage you will be doing to yourself, physically and psychologically.

Combining the two can be deadly. A study shows that more than a quarter of benzodiazepine-related hospital visits involved alcohol and it was also a factor in more than a fifth of benzodiazepine-related deaths.

Don’t let it get this far. Contact Smarmore Castle today.

What is the Safest Way to Treat Benzodiazepine and Alcohol Addiction?

The safest and most successful way to treat an addiction to benzodiazepines and alcohol is in residential rehab where you live in what feels like a hotel but you have access to treatments, experts and therapies.

Here you will be monitored 24/7, which means you will never be in danger if you experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, and you will have instant access to help and support if you feel you are struggling to cope with the cravings.

We’re not going to sugarcoat this: treating two addictions is more difficult than treating one. You’re having to deal with two sets of triggers, two sets of cravings and two sets of withdrawal symptoms.

You will need a tailored treatment programme of medical support and therapy, not just to deal with your multiple needs, but also to explore the reasons behind your addictive behaviour. Therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy arms you with the tools to think, feel and behave differently so you can start life again without wanting the drink and do drugs.

At Smarmore Castle, you will be reviewed by a consultant psychiatrist who can diagnose your issues.  Treatment can be followed by a 12-month Aftercare group therapy programme for patients which also includes a family therapy programme for loved ones.  This can be discussed during treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long After Benzodiazepines Can You Drink?

This depends on the benzos you are taking, but they can last up to three days in your system so you should avoid alcohol for at least 72 hours.

Can you combine benzodiazepines and alcohol?

No. While you shouldn’t panic if you combine the two by mistake, doing this regularly severe mental and physical side effects.

Can I take diazepam after a glass of wine?

No. If you do, you could become very sleepy and have difficulty waking up, and your breathing could slow down to dangerous levels.

What should be avoided when taking benzodiazepines?

Drinking alcohol and taking other drugs. Even combining them with small amounts of alcohol can have damaging side effects.

References

  1. Johnson B, Streltzer J, (2013), Risks Associated with Long-Term Benzodiazepine Use, Am Fam Physician 88 (4), 224-225
  2. Leigh S, (2019), Problem Drinkers Have Higher ‘Benzo’ Use, UCSF-Kaiser Permanente Study Shows, University of California San Francisco  
  3. Hirschtritt M E, Palzes V A, Kline-Simon A H, et al, (2019), Benzodiazepine and Unhealthy Alcohol Use Among Adult Outpatients, Am J Manag Care, 25 (12), e358-e365
  4. Bellentani S, Saccoccio G, Costa G, et al, (1997), Drinking Habits as Cofactors of Risk Alcohol Induced Liver Damage, Gut: 41 845-850
  5. Liao C-Y, Chung C-H, Lu K-C et al, (2021), Taking Sleeping Pills and the Risk of Chronic Kidney Disease: A Nationwide Population-Based Retrospective Cohort Study, Pharmacol: 11
  6. Longo L P, Jonson B, (2000), Addiction: Part 1. Benzodiazepines, Side Effects, Abuse Risk and Alternatives, Am Fam Physician, 61 (7), 2121-2128
  7. Kranzler H R, Li T-K, (2008), What is Addiction? Alcohol Res Health: 31 (2) 93-95
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, (2014), Benzodiazepines in Combination With Opioid Relievers or Alcohol: Greater Risk of More Serious ED Visit Outcomes, The Dawn Report
  9. Brubacher J, Chan H, Erdelyi S, et al, (2021), Medications and Risk of Motor Vehicle Collision Responsibility in British Columbia, Canada: a Population-Based Case-Control Study, The Lancet, 6 (6), E374-E385
  10. Sachdeva A, Choudhary M, Chandra M, (2015), Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond, J Clin Diagn Res, 9 (9), VE01-VE07
  11. British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, What is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)?

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