If you’re someone that gets a severe anxiety before a speech, presentation, social event or any high-stakes situation, you might be considering prescription drugs like Xanax to help solve your problem. Perhaps you’ve heard from a friend/colleague, or read on online forums, about how medications like Xanax helped the performing careers of others or helped them through a high-anxiety scenario.
In the US alone, Anxiety has become a prevalent problem in recent years with over 40 million people (approximately 19% of the population) afflicted every year . Consequently, millions of prescriptions are doled out for anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medications like Xanax every year despite increasingly apparent problems of abuse and addiction.
While there are many people who sing the praises of Xanax, many others have felt compelled to wean themselves off it due to the side effects and rapid tolerance build-up that can come with the drug. And that begs a few questions: why is Xanax both so effective and so problematic, and what can you replace it with? Is there a natural alternative that offers the same anxiety-fighting benefits but without the side-effects & addiction risk, while ideally being all-natural and available over the counter? In this article we look at how & why Xanax works for anxiety, what the side-effects & risks are and finally investigate several natural alternatives to Xanax that are available over-the-counter (OTC).
What is Xanax?
Xanax is an anti-anxiety medication in the benzodiazepine family. This is the same family that includes diazepam (Valium), clonazepam (Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan), flurazepam (Dalmane), and others .
First approved for usage by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in October 1981, Xanax works by decreasing abnormal excitement within the brain.
What Do People Use Xanax For?
A fast-acting drug, the effects of Xanax can be felt very soon after taking a dose, typically within two hours at most . Xanax acts on the brain and central nervous system by increasing the calming effect of the brain’s naturally-occurring chemical messengers.
Xanax is most commonly used for its sedative and calming effects in order to relieve the symptoms of anxiety and promote sleep.
What Does Xanax Do To The Brain?
Benzodiazepines like Xanax act on the brain and central nervous system (CNS) to produce a calming effect.
Xanax in particular slows down the movement of brain chemicals that may have become unbalanced, resulting in a reduction in nervous tension and anxiety. Xanax does this by boosting the effects of a natural chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is made in the brain .
How Long Does Xanax Stay In Your System?
Typically, Xanax has an elimination half-life of about 11 hours (though the range is from about 6-27 hours, and often higher in obese users of the medication). This means that it takes a healthy person’s body 11 hours to get rid of half of a dose of the drug .
There are a number of factors that can alter the rate that Xanax leaves the body, including :
- Metabolism speed
- Height and weight
- Body fat content
- Health of the liver and/or kidneys
- Amount of the drug taken
- How long the drug has been used
Dosages & How Long Does It Take For Xanax To Work?
Xanax comes in either tablet form, an extended-release tablet, an orally disintegrating tablet (a tablet that dissolves quickly in the mouth), and a concentrated solution (liquid) to be taken by mouth .
Xanax should be taken by mouth exactly as a doctor directs. The dosage will be based on the following factors:
- Why the person is taking it
- Their age
- How their body responds to the treatment
A doctor may gradually increase the dosage of Xanax until the drug works effectively for that person and their needs. If using Xanax, you are advised to closely follow the doctor’s instructions to reduce the risk of side effects.
If a person has used Xanax regularly for a long time or in high dosages, withdrawal symptoms can/will occur if they suddenly stop taking it. Usually, to prevent this, a doctor will reduce the dosage of Xanax gradually.
Xanax is available in doses of:
- 0.25 milligrams (mg): This will be white, oval, scored, and imprinted with “XANAX 0.25.”
- 0.5 mg: This will be peach, oval, scored, and imprinted with “XANAX 0.5.”
- 1 mg: This will be blue, oval, scored, and imprinted with “XANAX 1.0.”
- 2 mg: This will be white, oblong, multi-scored, and imprinted with “XANAX” on one side and “2” on the reverse side.
A person should not crush, chew, or break a Xanax extended-release tablet. They should swallow the tablet whole. It is specially made to release the drug slowly into the body. Breaking the tablet can cause too much of the drug to be released at once.
And finally, it is not advised for people to share their medications with other people. It may not be suitable for them and may harm them .
What Are The Side Effects of Xanax?
Possible side effects of Xanax should be differentiated by the treatment duration (i.e. whether it’s being used over the short or medium/long term).
In the short term, the most common side effects of Xanax include :
- Reduced cognitive alertness
- Slurred speech
- Lack of muscle coordination and strength, which can lead to falls and other injuries
- Impairment of driving skills
- Decreased sexual appetite and erection problems in men
The following short-term side effects of Xanax are less common :
- Depression and mood changes
- Blurred vision
- Nausea and poor appetite
- Breathing difficulties
- Increased risk of seizures in epileptics
If benzodiazepines like Xanax are used for longer, especially if abused for recreation, the following side effects have been observed in some cases:
- Lasting behavioral changes
- Poor control over emotions
- General loss of interest (in leisure activities, other people, job, etc.)
- Increased anxiety
- Loss of libido
- Suicidal ideation
It is also worth noting that Xanax is not considered a safe medication for several groups of people, including those who:
- Have an allergy to other benzodiazepines, including diazepam and lorazepam
- Have a history of liver disease or kidney disease
- Have personal or family history of substance abuse
- A history of glaucoma
- Are pregnant or currently nursing
It is incredibly important to consult with a healthcare provider to determine if any prescription medication is right for you.
When speaking with your healthcare professional, be sure to provide them with a full list of other medications and supplements you’re taking as negative drug interactions with Xanax are possible .
Why Is Xanax (and Similar Benzodiazepine Drugs) So Addictive?
Xanax is a controlled substance and has become an often abused drug due to what’s known as a “Xanax high”. It is fairly easy to develop a tolerance to Xanax and the drug is abused by people both with and without a prescription.
Signs of Xanax abuse include:
- Continued use despite side effects
- Inability to stop using Xanax
- Loss of interest in other activities
- Obsession with obtaining more Xanax
- Risky behavior; like combining your prescription and alcohol or driving after taking your medicine
Similar to other addictions, Xanax abuse can lead to poor health, ruined relationships, forgotten responsibilities, and maybe worse.
If you, or someone you know, is suffering from addiction please contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or through the website.
Alternatives To Xanax & Benzodiazepines For Anxiety
With the potential risks and downsides of Benzodiazepines like Xanax, as well as the risk of dependence when you take any drug habitually, it may be best to consider which natural anxiety remedies can provide the same benefits for anxiety as Xanax does.
Many foods, minerals and dietary supplements have similar properties to prescription anxiety medications like Xanax or SSRIs, in terms of lowering the negative effects of stress and anxiety.
The major difference is that natural Xanax alternatives are less likely to have detrimental side-effects, and carry a lower risk of dependence or addiction. They are also more widely available and can be bought ‘over the counter‘, as you do not need a prescription, and almost all are beneficial to your health in more areas than one .
Here are some notable natural remedies for anxiety that you can consider trying:
Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, shortened to GABA, is a naturally-occurring amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter within the body. GABA has been shown in numerous studies to have a calming effect, and GABA deficiency is believed to play a part in several anxiety disorders .
Several studies that used GABA supplementation have found it may have a positive effect on stress and anxiety , which would help block the symptoms associated with anxiety in a similar way to benzodiazepines (Xanax included) without the associated addiction risk.
5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) may not sound too familiar to you, but you already have lots of it floating around in your body. 5-HTP is the parent compound to several brain chemicals (neurotransmitters), including serotonin. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that’s thought to be associated with mood and mental health .
5-HTP is touted as a natural anxiety remedy because of its ability to boost serotonin. Many prescription medications for treating anxiety (like SSRIs and SNRIs) raise serotonin in your brain.
While there are several small studies about 5-HTP, both on its own and in combination with other drugs, where it’s used to alleviate anxiety symptoms; larger, higher-quality studies are still needed to completely confirm its benefits.
Since 5-HTP has an affect on serotonin levels, it may interact with other medications you’re taking, causing a potentially life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome in rare cases. Because of this, it’s best to talk to a healthcare professional before giving 5-HTP a try .
Valerian root (valeriana officinalis) is a herb derived from the root of Valerian plant, that was originally found growing in Europe and Asia. Valerian supplements are not, as yet, FDA-approved for any medical use but Valerian is generally considered safe for adults for short-term use .
There are many clinical studies involving Valerian but the results are varied and research covering exactly how valerian works in the body is sparse. Many studies end up concluding that inconsistent outcomes in studies of valerian root might be due to the “variable quality of herbal extracts” and that more reliable effects could be expected from the whole root/rhizome of the plant .
What studies have shown is that Valerian can boost GABA levels in the brain which, as we mentioned above, has been shown in numerous studies to have a calming effect, and GABA deficiency is believed to play a part in several anxiety disorders .
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence showing people experiencing a calmer state and reduced anxiety after taking GABA supplements . Two (more detailed) studies carried out in 2006 looked at the effects of GABA supplements on the brain .
The first study involved 13 participants taking GABA, water, and L-theanine (an amino acid known to promote relaxation). Compared to water and L-theanine; GABA significantly increased alpha brain waves, which are associated with feeling calm and relaxed.
In the other study, eight subjects were divided into two groups. One group was given GABA, and the other a placebo. Then all subjects had to cross a suspended bridge for a stimulus of stress. The GABA group was found to be considerably more relaxed as they performed a stressful task. Researchers went on to conclude that GABA can work as a natural relaxant.
And this is exactly why performers of different kinds (musicians, singers, public speakers, actors facing auditions, etc) have experimented with using Valerian Root supplements to help with their anxiety symptoms. Valerian has proven to be an effective natural alternative to prescription medications like beta blockers and/or Xanax for anxiety.
Silexan is a branded extract of lavender oil created by Wilmar Schwabe GmbH, a German pharmaceutical company. Schwabe pharmaceuticals claim that silexan is “introducing a new therapeutic alternative in the field of anxiety disorder treatment” .
At its core, Silexan is a standardized essential oil of L. angustifolia (lavender) flowers prepared by steam distillation . Research involving the compound is showing that “uniquely prepared, pharmaceutical quality lavender oil” (potent silexan) can improve symptoms of mild anxiety. Two recent studies found lavender oil capsules to be just as effective as commonly prescribed benzodiazepine Lorazepam and the antidepressant Paroxetine .
The anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties of lavender/silexan seemingly come from the antagonization of NMDA and GABA-related receptors in the central nervous system that influence muscle contraction, as well as inhibition of the serotonin transporter. In this way, the mechanism of action for Silexan seems to be similar to anxiolytic and antidepressant drugs like SSRIs and Benzodiazepines (Xanax) .
The major upside to lavender/silexan over other anti-anxiety medications is the almost complete lack of abuse potential in healthy recreational users of the lavender extract . Downsides can include the affectionately-titled “lavender burps” which are potential mild gastrointestinal issues, and recent studies showing that chemicals in lavender oil are potential endocrine disruptors with varying effects on receptors for two hormones — estrogen and androgen .
Final Thoughts About Natural Xanax Alternatives
If you are currently living with anxiety, you’re not alone. Like we said at the top of the page, anxiety disorders are the most prevalent psychiatric disorder in the world and in the US alone currently affect over 40 million adults per year .
It is common for anxiety symptoms to interfere with your daily life and cause significant distress. If this is your current situation, consider reaching out to a mental health professional who can properly advise you about the right treatment that can reduce your symptoms and significantly improve your quality of life.
Your doctor may recommend Xanax, but if you are not comfortable using the prescription medication with a high risk of addiction, talk with them about the alternatives listed here that are less risky and have less risk of dependence & addiction.
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