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Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Mood-Altering Drugs

Women and Tranquillizers

Tranquillizers (Benzodiazepines)

  • Prescribed mood-altering drugs, such as anti-anxiety agents, antidepressants, and sedatives, have long been marketed as medicines primarily aimed at, and used by, women.

  • In certain situations, these drugs have justifiable and effective uses, although it is crucial that we have good information about other possible effects, interactions with alcohol and other drugs, and their potential for addiction.

Types of tranquillizers (Benzodiazepines)

  • Benzodiazepines are prescription drugs commonly known as tranquillizers and sleeping pills.

  • Among the most common are: Ativan (lorazepam), Serax (oxazepam), Rivotril and Klonopin (clorazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), and Valium (diazepam). Sleeping pills such as Imovane (zopiclone) also act similarly to benzodiazepines.

Why is this an issue for women?

  • More women than men are prescribed benzodiazepines. Approved use is for anxiety or sleeping problems, however, some women are given the drug when experiencing trauma, grief, chronic illness, physical pain, or adjusting to a major life transition.

  • Women who are prescribed benzodiazepines often do not get other, nondrug types of support we need.

What are the effects?

  •  Like other central nervous system depressants, benzodiazepines can impair memory and reasoning, balance, and coordination in the short term. Over longer term use this can result in falls and accidents, and the impacts on emotional health, such as emotional blunting, suicidal tendencies, and paradoxical anxiety and rage, can be more serious.

  • For over forty years it has been known that benzodiazepines are addictive even at therapeutic doses if prescribed for more than several weeks, yet they often are still prescribed for much longer periods. Drug-related tolerance and withdrawal symptoms are frequently not identified by physicians, or women using benzodiazepines, and can lead to further prescribing of drugs.

What are issues regarding stopping use?

  • When withdrawing, women can experience some, or all, of the following symptoms: increased anxiety and panic attacks, flu-like symptoms, hypersensitivity to light, depression, restlessness, poor memory and concentration, dizziness and light-headedness, weakness, tremors or shaking, heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, indigestion, bodily pains, and changes in sight, hearing, and other perceptions. These and other less common symptoms can come and go over months in a cyclical fashion.

  • You may get help with tapering off use with the support of a health professional and others who have been through the process. Some of the websites below offer ideas for understanding and managing withdrawal in this way.

Issues for older and younger women

  • As with alcohol, benzodiazepine use can be particularly problematic for women in different stages of life.

  • While the research is not as extensive as with alcohol, it is known that benzodiazepine use by a pregnant woman can cause symptoms in her child at birth such as floppiness and failure to suckle, and have longer-term impacts on the child's development.

  • For older women, long-term benzodiazepine use has been linked to increased risk for falls and hip and femur fractures. Benzodiazepine use also can be particularly problematic for the elderly as it can cause confusion and cognitive decline.

The following links on women and tranquilizer use may be helpful:


  • Benzodiazepine Addiction, Withdrawal & Recovery

    This British website has many useful links, including the BenzoForum, a chat room for people seeking support during withdrawal from benzodiazepines. Dr. Ashton's medical manual for tapering is a great resource and is available chapter by chapter.

  • Manufacturing Addiction: The Over-Prescription of Benzodiazepines and Sleeping Pills To Women In Canada

    This report from the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women's Health provides an overview of the issues surrounding benzodiazepine use for women. Detailed, yet easy-to-read information is provided about the over-prescription of this class of drugs. Statistics compare the reasons for prescription and use in men and women, and the different effects of benzodiazepines on men and women. Ramifications for elderly, pregnant, and aboriginal women are discussed. Possible negative physical and psychological effects are discussed. Sections describe withdrawal and recovery from addiction, and the socio-economic costs of benzodiazepine use, including costs to the health care system, increased use of mental health programs, and productivity-related costs in the workplace. Policy recommendations and potential solutions are presented.

  • Prescription Drugs and Pain Medication

    This website of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse provides a general description of several types of prescription medications (pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives) that are very useful treatment tools but that pose a significant risk of misuse and addiction. Three classes of medications are described: opioids (morphine, codeine, and related medications); central nervous system depressants (barbiturates, benzodiazepines); and stimulants (Dexedrine and Ritalin).

    Trends in prescription medication abuse are noted, taken from the 2003 Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey. MTF assesses the extent and perceptions of drug use among 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students nationwide. Results from the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health are also presented. This survey estimates the number of persons over the age of 12 using prescription medications non-medically in the month prior to being questioned, and the lifetime prevalence of abuse. Finally, results from the 2002 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) are provided.

* Please note that in order to view a .pdf file, you need to have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer. You can download Adobe Acrobat Reader for free by clicking here.

Written by: Nancy Poole
Last revised: March 2005

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