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CNS Depressants

Written by Daphne Duncan, TAC Advisory Board, CABC, ACBC

What are CNS Depressants?

When it comes to CNS Depressants, it is tricky to see any initial danger in taking a prescribed medication from a trusted doctor.  However, these drugs are highly addictive and can even lead to overdose and death.  More than ever people are seeking help for anxiety and sleep and, thus, CNS depressants are being prescribed more than ever.

Prescribed for insomnia and anxiety

Benzodiazepines were initially introduced in the early 1960’s to treat insomnia and anxiety. Over the years, new drugs have been developed to be “far safer”. Benzodiazepines have a common basic chemical structure which signals the brain’s receptors to release the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) [1].  As a result, the central nervous system slows down while the transmitters inhibit the activity of neurons.

Dangerous, says the FDA

Today, benzodiazepines are regarded by the FDA as the most dangerous drug family.  The FDA requires the strongest warning regarding risks of dependency, addiction, and withdrawal symptoms for benzodiazepines.  They become most lethal when mixed with opioid and/or alcohol consumption causing respiratory failure.

Side Effects

Side effects include:

  • Sleepiness and deep sleep
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination and falling
  • Poor thought processes
  • Weak comprehension
  • Memory difficulty
  • Poor judgement
  • Mood swings
  • Involuntary jerking of the eyes
  • Constricted pupils
  • Slowed breathing rate
  • Birth defects
  • Addiction
  • Death if combined with alcohol and/or opioids
  • Possible overdose, leading to death

Withdrawal

CNS depressants cause a physical dependence and severe withdrawal reaction due to GABA neurons adapting to the presence of the drug.  The neurons become underactive when the drug is absent. This causes restlessness, irritability, insomnia, muscle tension, weakness, pain, aches, blurred vision, heart palpitations, hallucinations, and seizures.  Ironically, the predominant symptom of benzodiazepine withdrawal is anxiety.  The patient experiences worse anxiety than before starting the drug.  The length of time of withdrawal symptoms depends on BMI (body mass index) of the patient, the type of drug, dosage, and length of time consumed.  Physical dependency happens from taking the drug daily over a few short weeks.

The World’s Response to Benzodiazepine Dependence

“Addiction is a disease”

The world says addiction is a disease that left untreated can led to death. The world offers various forms of treatment from secular residential programs costing up to $100,000 a month, half-way houses, out-patient care, cognitive behavioral therapy, and even more prescribed medication to act like the drug and trick the brain out of withdrawal.

Alternate Treatments

Harvard Health suggests treatment for anxiety and insomnia without benzodiazepines can look like exercise, muscle relaxation training, yoga, breath training, and hypnosis.  “The most carefully studied and often best alternative to benzodiazepines and related drugs is cognitive behavioral therapy”.[2]

What God Says About Benzodiazepine Addiction

Glorify Him

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”(1 Corinthians 10:31). We are created by God to worship our Creator.  As part of our worship we are to treat our bodies as God’s Word instructs.  Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and are not our own for they were purchased by the precious blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19).  This includes not abusing our bodies through excessive intake of drugs, food, or sex.

How does God define addiction in His Word?

“Addiction”, defined biblically, is idolatry.  Idolatry is defined as preoccupation with one’s thinking that leads to demanding and temporarily pleasurable desire that gratifies self (Shaw 77) [3].  It is habitual sin that the individual chooses to act upon.  The idolater seeks to please himself/herself in his/her sin nature problem (James 4:4).  However, idolatry goes deeper than actions or behavior and is rooted in the heart.

Addiction is a worship disorder where the addict is worshipping the tool that he/she is using in idolatry rather than worshipping the One we are created to worship – the God of the Bible (Exodus 20:3).  We are all idol factories producing idols at a rapid rate and in mass quantities.  We need to depend on the Savior for help and move away from worldly solutions that offer nothing.  “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

What we need to know is accessible and sufficient through God’s living Word and can actively change the real difficulties, like addiction, of living people today (2 Timothy 3:16).  We can go to the Lord in confidence so that we may receive His mercy and grace (Hebrews 4:12-16).  God is bigger than any problem; it makes sense to study His Word and His response to suffering, sin, and other human experiences.  Because Scripture is sufficient, it should be the primary source in transforming our addictions (John 17:17).

When a Good Thing Turns into Idolatry

Although there is potential for the idolater to use drugs and alcohol to meet desires of the flesh, there is a good, godly purpose for them.  Drugs and alcohol have medicinal and pain relief purposes.  In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul instructs Timothy in using wine for medicinal purposes: “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments”.  Alcohol can also be used to kill harmful bacteria which is why Paul may have been instructing him to use a little wine.  Notice he says “a little”.  Drugs are acceptable for the purpose of alleviating physical pain according to Scripture in Proverbs: “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more” (31:6-7).  Moreover, pain relieving drugs are a gift from God to be used during painful, end of life circumstances.  When we consider the Creator’s purpose in creating such substances in the light of Scripture, it is easier to understand why the drugs exist and that drugs and alcohol aren’t the enemy but our own flesh and defiled hearts.  Living to worship the Creator, while using other gifts in His creation as He instructs us to is for our protection and His design for a fuller life in Christ.

How Benzodiazepine Addiction Starts

Although benzodiazepines are prescribed, they are just as dangerous as street drugs when taken excessively or mixed with other substances.  Prescriptions are just as deadly as street drugs as far as it depends on the consumer.  It is easy to accidentally overdose on benzodiazepines especially while consuming alcohol and, while under the influence, unknowingly taking too much.

Dealers

Benzodiazepines are well known on the streets, especially among heroin users who would like to take their high to the next level or are seeking more euphoria that the heroin is no longer providing.  This is a trend on the street and many dealers carry and deal both heroin and prescription CNS depressants.

Medical (Legal) Use

However, it is more common for people to become addicted accidentally through legal use.  Typically, a patient will undergo surgery or suffer an injury or crisis, such as sudden loss of a loved one, and be prescribed a CNS depressant to cope.  Some patients are diagnosed with panic or anxiety disorder and will be prescribed CNS Depressant for treatment along with cognitive behavioral therapy.  After only a few weeks, the patient will develop tolerance to the drug and need more for the desired effect to take place.  At this point the patient is physically dependent.

Physical Dependence Leading to Depression

Once addicted, the patient experiences symptoms of depression.  Thinking, attention, and judgement become impaired.  The patient begins to develop obsessive thoughts and, ironically, more anxiety.  Symptoms of addiction and withdrawal follow.  The patient may even begin to break laws to support the addiction.  The problem becomes progressively worse as he/she desperately avoids dreaded withdrawal symptoms as a result of the prescribed amount no longer being enough to appease the addict.

Tolerance Increase

As the addict consumes more, his/her tolerance increases and so the cycle continues. The addict abuses the benzodiazepine despite consequences and becomes enslaved.  Sometimes the addict goes into total isolation, commits suicide, or accidentally overdoses.

Overdose symptoms include:

  • Lethargy
  • Low body temperature
  • Decreased pupil response to light
  • Rapid eye movements
  • Crossed eyes or “walleyes (barbiturates)
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred vision (benzodiazepines)
  • Slurred speech
  • Staggering
  • Decreased deep tendon reflexes (barbiturates)
  • Poor muscle tone (benzodiazepines)
  • Hallucinations (benzodiazepines)
  • Unresponsiveness (benzodiazepines)
  • Memory disturbances
  • Poor judgment
  • Limited attention span
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety (benzodiazepines)
  • Amnesia (benzodiazepines)
  • Combativeness (barbiturates)
  • Paranoia
  • Respiratory depression
  • Apnea (interruptions in breathing)
  • Lack of oxygen in body tissues
  • Either rapid or very slow heart rate
  • Dangerously low blood pressure
  • Heavy sweating
  • Shock

Quick Facts

  • An estimated 1.6 million Americans began using prescription drugs nonmedically in 1998 (the last year for which these data are available.)
  • Approximately 2% of the U.S. population over the age of 12 use prescription drugs nonmedically.
  • Approximately 9% of high school students surveyed have taken barbiturates nonmedically at least once in their lives.
  • Approximately 9% of high school students surveyed have taken benzodiazepines nonmedically at least once in their lives.
  • The barbiturate phenobarbital led to 1,493 visits to emergency departments last year, despite fairly low prescription numbers.
  • A variety of benzodiazepines led to 44,796 visits to emergency departments last year.
  • Barbiturates caused 396 deaths last year, some due to the drug alone, and some in connection with other drugs, suicide, accidents, or mental illness.
  • Benzodiazepines caused 10,684 deaths last year, some due to the drug alone, and some in connection with other drugs, suicide, accidents, or mental illness.[4]

Treatment for Benzodiazepine Addiction

Medical Detox

Benzodiazepines are the most dangerous drugs from which to detox.  It is recommended to first seek a medical detox where the addict can be observed and treated by medical professionals for 4-7 days.

Biblical Programs

Once a medical detox is complete, there are several Biblical Residential Programs and Non-Residential Programs that we highly recommend.

Biblical Counseling

In addition to biblical programs, finding a biblical counselor is recommended for understanding addiction through the lens of Scripture. Visit Commissioned Addictions Biblical Counselors to find an Addictions Biblical Counselor in your area.  If you have trouble finding one, also visit https://biblicalcounseling.com/find-a-counselor/.

Hope in Christ

There is hope and freedom available to anyone struggling with any addiction. Christ alone is the true antidote given to us by the Father who knew we needed divine help and healing for addictions.  The only prescription you need is His Word (Hebrews 4:12).  Jesus alone transforms hearts and makes the dead come alive!

Do you want to help addicts?

Start a group study at your church using Next Steps: Be TRANSFORMED: A Disciple-Making Program for Addicts

 

Sources

[1] https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/benzodiazepines_and_the_alternatives

[2] https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/benzodiazepines_and_the_alternatives

[3] The Heart of Addiction: A Biblical Perspective. Mark E. Shaw. Focus Publishing, Bemidji, MN. p. 77

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benzodiazepine