Blog

April 11, 2019

What Does Xanax Do To Your Brain?

Xanax is a Schedule IV benzodiazepine—a popular controlled substance used to treat anxiety and prevent seizures. Xanax is chemically engineered to target neurons in the brain, which produces a euphoric, sedative buzz that is highly addictive but dangerously unpredictable when combined with other legal or illicit drugs. Xanax is profitable on the black market and widely diverted, frequently serving as a gateway drug to other hard-core substances like fentanyl or heroin. Unfortunately, Xanax addiction and abuse rewire the brain in destructive ways, and recovery from its potent effects requires professional intervention.

XANAX AND BRAIN FUNCTION

Xanax is only recommended for short-term use—no more than six weeks, but prescriptions for Xanax are increasing at an alarming rate, with increases nearly doubling within the past five years according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA).  When Xanax is used for longer periods of time—or abused irresponsibly—the brain begins to function improperly without it.  Even in cases of casual, recreational use, Xanax hijacks thought processes, over-ride emotional responses, interferes with memory and muscular coordination, and even affects consciousness.

Once Xanax is ingested, GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter located in the brain and throughout the central nervous system (CNS), becomes artificially inflated, calming nerve impulses responsible for regulating anxiety and panic. These primal responses—rooted in our hunter-gatherer origins, are hyper-aroused in many people due to the fast-paced, digital era we are currently living in.

Xanax disrupts neuronal functioning by decreasing brain activity.  Neurons, like wires, send messages throughout the body.  Xanax disrupts the delicate balance of the electrical charges inside and outside of the neuron, which is critical for sending and receiving messages. In response, the activity in the brain related to fear and anxiety decreases. GABA receptors help facilitate the process by releasing a chemical to disrupt neuronal signals once Xanax attaches to them.  Because of this complex interaction, several negative side effects begin to occur.

Coordination can be adversely affected by the brain’s malfunction in response to Xanax, with users experiencing speech and balance difficulties. Concentration on daily tasks from household chores to professional responsibilities also diminishes. This frequently leads to dangerous and unnecessary risk taking, criminal or irresponsible behavior, relationship difficulties, and unsafe sexual practices.  Depression and suicidal ideation (SI) are also an unwelcome byproduct of Xanax addiction. In an all-too-common scenario, Xanax abuse ends with a trip to the emergency room (ER) or intensive care unit (ICU), the result of inability to control morbid thinking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Xanax emergency room visits have increased approximately 175 percent in the past 7 years.

Xanax weaves its own form of black magic that has a detrimental impact on all aspects of mental health. For example, users may suffer from increased irritability, auditory and visual hallucinations, uncharacteristic hostility, and a generally sour, provocative mood. As a result, Xanax is commonly associated with criminal activity and a variety of debilitating mental health disorders and symptoms.  The dementia attributable to Xanax addiction is of particular concern to physicians, nurses, and mental health practitioners—and will be discussed at greater depth later in the article.  

SHORT-TERM IMPACT

Xanax’s peak intensity lasts for 3-4 hours and has a much shorter half-life than most drugs, which means the medication exits the body more rapidly than drugs with a longer half-life. Because of this, a person must take Xanax more often in order to achieve the desired sedative effects, which increases the likelihood of addiction. The short-term effects of Xanax on the brain may include:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Diminished reflex reactions
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Impaired cognition
  • Irrational decision making
  • Decreased respiratory function, blood pressure, and heart rate
  • Rapid development of tolerance
  • Reduced anxiety and stress
  • Sedation
  • Blurred vision
  • Digestive distress
  • Swollen extremities

LONG-TERM IMPACT

The long-term effects of Xanax are highly variable and depend upon numerous factors including overall health, age, gender, weight, the duration and severity of dosage, the presence of co-occurring mental health disorders, polysubstance abuse, and many others. Xanax abuse may lead to cognitive decline involving major memory lapses and impaired functioning in multiple brain regions—all of which are difficult to treat.  Once addicted, failure to take Xanax can result in precipitated withdrawal—a rapid acceleration and intensification of withdrawal symptoms that may prove fatal if not treated immediately.  Long-term symptoms of Xanax abuse include:

  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Brain fog
  • Delirium
  • Memory problems
  • Mood changes
  • Slurred speech
  • Depression
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased anxiety
  • Suicidal ideation (SI)
  • Erratic behavior
  • Anhedonia
  • Heart attack and/or coma

XANAX-INDUCED SEIZURES

Xanax is popularly prescribed to treat seizure disorders. People suffering from AUDs are also prescribed Xanax with careful monitoring by a doctor in order to prevent seizures due to sudden withdrawal. Because of its potent effect on GABA receptors in the brain, Xanax helps minimize seizure potential. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the primary neurotransmitter found in the cerebral cortex—a vital brain region responsible for controlling movement, speech, memory, and intelligence.

When GABA levels are normal, the cerebral cortex is involved in feelings of energy, excitement, and temporary anxiety. Although anxiety and panic disorders naturally occur with higher levels of GABA, excessive levels of GABA can induce seizures. Xanax’s calming action on GABA receptors helps prevent this, but also exhibits a high potential for abuse, dependence, and subsequently addiction.  Ironically, trying to end an addiction to Xanax may cause seizures. Some people are able to stop taking Xanax with only mild insomnia and anxiety symptoms, but others develop dangerous seizures, which is why medical detox is considered a critical aspect of the withdrawal process.

According to The Epilepsy Foundation, most seizures are minor, result in minimal issues, and end on their own. However, during any seizure it is possible for someone to injure themselves, leading to head injuries or broken bones, breathing problems due to oxygen deprivation, brain damage, as well as damage to other vital organs. Convulsive seizures lasting for more than five minutes are considered a medical emergency and require immediate medical treatment as the person may choke on saliva or vomit during the seizure.  Long-lasting or repeated seizures can even cause coma or death.

The kind of seizures caused by withdrawal from alcohol or drugs is completely different from those caused by epilepsy and other seizure disorders.  The seizures caused by Xanax are most often caused by people who have taken dangerously high doses of the drug for nonmedical reasons and who are most likely older.

ALZHEIMER’S RISK

Within the past five years, case-controlled studies have concluded that benzodiazepine medication such as Xanax is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and an increased risk of dementia. They have found that people taking a benzodiazepine such as Xanax for three months or less had the same dementia risk as those who had never taken one; however, those taking the drug for three to six months raised the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 32 percent.  Taking Xanax for more than six months increased the risk by a whopping 84 percent.  This evidence simply cannot be ignored and physicians are being urged to use caution when prescribing Xanax, especially to elder patients.  Benzodiazepines in general—and Xanax in particular—are risky when taken by older people because they slow down mental processing and can cause considerable confusion.  These same studies reinforced the suspicion that long- term benzodiazepine users were most at risk for developing Alzheimer-related dementia.

Dr. Vabren Watts, who wrote an article for the Psychiatric News entitled “Long-Term Use of Benzodiazepines May Be Linked to Alzheimer’s,” recommend only short-term use of the drug because of the problematic withdrawal symptoms and the fact that they are often prescribed long-term in older people. Dr. Watts’s clinical recommendations represent a complete about- face for the psychiatric community, which, in tandem with major pharmaceutical companies, fueled the benzo epidemic by falsely assuring the public and other medical practitioners that they were safe and not addictive.  Xanax is now only recommended to be used daily for no more than four to six weeks.

If you or someone you love are struggling with Xanax addiction and in need of help, contact a substance abuse professional today. The consequences of Xanax addiction are long-lasting and serious, and delaying treatment is never recommended. Taking immediate action could mean the difference between life and death—and the life you could be saving might be your own.

For more about Xanax addiction and recovery, check out these related articles:

Sources:

Journal of Addictive Medicine. A Review of Alprazolam Use, Misuse, and Withdrawal. Jan, 2018.

British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (BJCP). Alprazolam is relatively more toxic than other benzodiazepines in overdose. July, 2004.

Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology. Persistence of cognitive effects after withdrawal from long-term benzodiazepine use: a meta-analysis. April, 2004.

Behavioral Neurology. The Effect of Chronic Alprazolam Intake on Memory, Attention, and Psychomotor Performance in Healthy Human Male Volunteers. July, 2016.

close