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What are benzodiazepines, and how do they work (mechanism of action)?

Benzodiazepines are man-made medications that cause mild to severe depression of the nerves within the brain (central nervous system) and sedation (drowsiness).

Seizures, anxiety, and other diseases that require benzodiazepine treatment may be caused by excessive activity of nerves in the brain. These drugs may work by enhancing the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. Gamma-aminobutyric acid is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that nerves in the brain use to send messages to one another. Gamma-aminobutyric acid reduces the activity of nerves in the brain and increasing the effect of GABA with a benzodiazepine, reduces brain activity.

What are the uses for benzodiazepines?

Adult men and women use benzodiazepines to treat:

  • Anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Panic disorders
  • Muscle spasms
  • Seizures
  • Sleeplessness
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Status epilepticus (A life-threatening disorder of the brain.)
  • Premenstrual syndrome

Other uses for benzodiazepines

These medications also are used for:

  • Sedation during surgery
  • The treatment various types of anxiety disorders, for example:
    • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
    • Social anxiety disorder (when antidepressants aren’t effective)
    • Panic disorder (when antidepressants aren’t effective)

Benzodiazepine drugs (also called benzos) are habit forming and can lead to addiction. Long-term use also can lead to tolerance, which means that lower doses will become ineffective and patients will need higher doses. These drugs are abused to get ‘high’ due to their effects on the brain.

What are the side effects of benzodiazepines?

Common side effects include:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Sedation
  • Memory impairment
  • Improper body balance
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Weight gain
  • Dry mouth
  • Reduced libido
  • Fatigue
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