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Another drug epidemic is set to hit the United States, but has been overshadowed by the opioid crisis. Anti-anxiety medications, or benzodiazepines, have been increasingly prescribed by physicians for decades and the damage is finally starting to show.
“Opioids tend to grab the front page headlines, but all along there has been this silent epidemic of increasing rates of benzodiazepines,” Dr. Brent Boyett told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Most of opioid overdose deaths have benzodiazepines in their system as well. While opioids’ toxic effects are respiratory depression, benzos also depress your breathing and can be fatal.”
Boyett holds a degree in osteopathic medicine and is board certified in family and addiction medicine.
The body becomes so relaxed and euphoric from drugs like Xanax, that it doesn’t feel the need to breathe, he said. Patients end up dying from an “overdose of pleasure.”
Boyett also holds a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD) and said these anxiety drugs should only be reserved for infrequent procedures like a colonoscopy, or extensive dental procedure.
“We don’t need chemicals to get us through the painful events of life,” he said. “This is about a 20-30 year old phenomena in the US where we feel we need to cope with life using chemicals to get us through traumatic issues.”
“In a lot of ways benzos mimic the pharmacology of alcohol,” he added. “It impairs memory, it impairs cognitive ability, and literally lowers your IQ and ability to function.”
Boyett believes the medications have a place in health care but thinks culture has become too dependent on them.
“I absolutely believe [benzos] have a place,” he said. “Benzodiazepines are a fantastic medication to deal with and to cope with infrequent and unnatural experiences. Once It becomes a coping mechanism to deal with your life, we have to question what we are doing here.”
Opioid withdraw is one of the country’s biggest concerns, Boyett said, but pointed out how it isn’t fatal. Benzos on the other hand can be life threatening and don’t receive nearly as much media attention.
“Opioid withdrawal will make you want to die, but typically won’t kill you. Benzo withdrawal on the other hand can create withdrawal seizures that can be life threatening,” Boyett said. “I want to be clear. I am not demonizing the class of drugs of benzos. But my argument is that our pendulum has swung towards an era in health care where we’ve been too liberal with comfort producing medications.”
Boyett thinks people need to rely more on talk therapy to cope with their distress, instead of counting on a silver bullet or magic pill.
“There are cognitive behavioral therapies and certain psycho-therapies that can help get to the root cause of anxiety and covering up those sort of traumatic events with long-term benzos – we are beginning to see that doesn’t work well,” he added.
“As a society we may have trained people to think they can alleviate every pain and find an answer to everything,” said Scott Obsborn, CEO of Pathway Healthcare, in a phone interview with TheDCNF. “People have better coping skills than they want to believe, but it’s just we’re not trained that way. You’re trained to think there has to be an answer, or a miracle drug, and that probably takes a long time to unwind and retrain people.”
Pathway Healthcare is composed of clinics dedicated to fighting and preventing addiction in four states. “There’s a high percentage of people who come through our program who are taking some kind of benzo,” Osborn added.
Boyett believes drug addiction trends are cyclical and says it’s only a matter of time before a new drug rises up and displaces opioids.
“We had crack in the 1980s. In the ’90s we had methamphetamine. In the late ’90s early 2000s we had the opioid epidemic that we are dealing with now,” he said. “I feel like that will peak and something else will take it’s place. If you look at history, epidemics for controlled substances come and go, but the demand for dopamine seems to be fairly consistent.”
He maintains the most important aspect of prevention is education and believes people need to understand how medications can still be dangerous, even when they are prescribed by a doctor.
“What we really need to do is to recognize and be prepared for the next epidemic before it gets here and also educate people on the dangers of these medications. Just because they come in a pill bottle from the physician’s office and the pharmacist, doesn’t mean they are without risk,” Boyett concluded.
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