Dangers of Mixing Alcohol & Benzodiazepines

a picture of prescription drugs and alcohol

Many medications have warnings in their documentation about avoiding alcohol while using the drug. This is because alcohol, as a known psychoactive substance, can have profound effects on the body and mind, interacting with medications that also act on the same systems. In many cases, these interactions can present a health risk to the individual who uses alcohol with medication. This is particularly true among other psychoactive substances that act as central nervous system depressants like alcohol.

Benzodiazepines are a particular medicine type that has a dangerous interaction with alcohol. Because both systems act to slow down messages from the brain, together they can cause physical and mental reactions that create a risk to health and life, making it dangerous to drink alcohol while taking benzodiazepines.

How Alcohol Affects the body and Brain

Many people enjoy a little bit of alcohol at parties or special events. The pleasant feeling that alcohol creates in the body is the result of the way alcohol affects neurotransmitters in the brain, creating a sense of relaxation, decreased inhibition, and euphoria – generally, a sense of fun. However, this sensation comes with a host of other physical and mental effects that can cause emotional and health complications, including:

  • Sedation
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Slowed breathing
  • Loss of coordination
  • Decreased cognitive abilities
  • Depression
  • Insomnia

Over time, these issues can cause complications described by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which are more long-lasting or even permanent, such as liver disease, heart disease, certain cancers, and continued mood disorders, along with the potential for alcoholism.

Long-term, heavy use of alcohol can result in severe withdrawal symptoms if the person tries to stop use. The most severe of these symptoms, delirium tremens, can result in death if withdrawal is not managed by a medical professional. Other withdrawal symptoms vary in the degree of discomfort and potential long-term health issues based on the amount and duration of the person’s drinking.

Benzodiazepine Physical Effects

Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that are used to treat a range of mental and physical health symptoms, including:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Panic disorders
  • Insomnia
  • Seizure disorders
  • Restless leg and other nervous disorders
  • Alcohol withdrawal (only under supervision of a doctor)

Even when a person has a legitimate prescription and adheres to the instructions, there is potential for the person to develop dependence on benzos along with potential physical and mental side effects, like those described by RxList:

  • Sedation
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness and weakness
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss
  • Slowed breathing and heartbeat

Benzodiazepines also cause a withdrawal syndrome if they are used regularly over a long period of time. Some of the symptoms of benzo withdrawal include seizures, tremors, confusion, and fever, all of which can lead to potential injury or death.

Combined Effects and Health Risks

Doctor holding clipboard with memory loss text on a sheet of paper on white background

As can be seen, many of the side effects of benzos and alcohol are similar to each other. Because of this, using both at the same time can multiply the body’s response, making the symptoms worse than they would be if the person were using only one of the substances. For example, because both benzos and alcohol slow breathing, using them together makes it more likely that the person will stop breathing altogether or at least decrease the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain, resulting in a condition called hypoxia, which can cause brain damage.

Both alcohol and benzos also affect the memory centers of the brain. It is suspected that high benzo use can lead to certain forms of dementia, and a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism indicates that alcohol interferes with the ability to form new long-term memories. Using them both together can increase damage to memory functions.

According to Scientific American, combining benzos and alcohol can also be a problem because both use the same pathways to clear from the body, slowing down the detox process and making overdose more likely as the liver is unable to eliminate them quickly enough to avoid a buildup of both substances in the body.

Using Benzos and Alcohol Together by Accident

Sometimes, individuals are unaware of the risk of drinking alcohol while using certain medications like benzos. In this case, the person might simply not recognize that drinking alcohol while on the medication can result in dangerous consequences. This reason behind combining alcohol with benzos is easily cleared up by sharing the information unless the individual is addicted to alcohol. If addiction is present, it must be treated before the person can properly follow the prescription instructions and not drink alcohol with the medication.

Why People Use Benzos and Alcohol Together on Purpose

It has been known for quite some time that some people use benzos and alcohol together to increase the anti-anxiety effects as explained in a study from the Journal of Psychiatric Research. If the medication isn’t effective enough, the individual might self-treat by using alcohol or other substances rather than seeing a doctor to adjust the medication or pursue other treatments. In these cases, the individual might also try using other drugs or medications, such as opioids, which can make the situation even worse.

In other cases, people who are using benzos recreationally may try drinking alcohol to enhance the high they are seeking. This is a major challenge because even knowing the risk of mixing the two substances may not be enough motivation for the person to avoid the combination of alcohol and benzodiazepines. In this case, drug abuse or addiction treatment can be vital to help the individual understand the risks of combining the two substances and avoid doing so, helping to prevent the potential for overdose.

Prescription Drug Safety and Alcohol Use or Abuse

Some people think that getting a prescription from a doctor means that the medication being used is safe no matter what; however, this is not true. Individuals should be aware that all medications have at least some level of risk based on the individual’s reaction to them and the potential for them to react with other medications or substances.

In fact, it is partly this risk that makes it necessary for some drugs and medications to be prescribed rather than being available over the counter. It is important for the individual’s doctor or pharmacist to be aware of what the person is taking or using in order to monitor the potential for interactions. However, not all doctors are even aware of the risks of taking medications with alcohol or other substances, as demonstrated by Medical Daily. Unfortunately, individuals and their doctors don’t always work together to share this needed information.

Stopping Use of Benzodiazepines and Alcohol

Often, the abuse of benzos and alcohol is out of an individual’s control. If this type of substance abuse or even addiction is suspected, it may be necessary to get help or treatment for addiction to or dependence on both substances before serious physical or mental damage occurs. Working with a professional treatment program can help individuals learn about the dangers of taking these substances together. Through treatment, therapies, and other support, the situations that led to abusing benzos together with alcohol can be effectively addressed.

About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Sunrise House is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More