Xanax (alprazolam) is a powerful benzodiazepine medication that can be used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. It works by decreasing the amount of activity in a person’s central nervous system, which can have calming effects on those suffering from anxiety-related mental health conditions.
Unfortunately, Xanax is also frequently abused and can become habit-forming. This can lead to some unpleasant physical side effects, including changes in weight.
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How Using Xanax as Prescribed Can Impact Weight
When used as directed, Xanax is generally safe and effective. Side effects, such as weight changes, tend to be minimal and manageable. However, understanding how Xanax abuse can cause weight changes starts with looking at how the drug works in therapeutic doses and the potential weight-related effects of taking it as prescribed.
Reduced Physical Activity
For starters, taking Xanax in therapeutic doses can cause weight gain in some people. This is because of the drug’s effects on an amino acid called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which acts as a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are responsible for transmitting messages throughout the nervous system, and GABA’s primary job is to reduce excitement and arousal in the brain and body.
Benzodiazepine medications like Xanax increase the activity of GABA — that’s what makes it such an effective anti-anxiety medication. However, greater GABA activity can also have a sedating effect, causing drowsiness, slowed cognitive processing, and decreased motivation. Because of these effects, some people taking Xanax may be less physically active than they otherwise would be, leading to fewer calories burned and potential weight gain.
Changes in Emotional Eating Habits
People who struggle with anxiety often overeat to find comfort or distraction from their symptoms. As a result, some people who take Xanax as directed may find that their emotional eating habits change for the better in response to the medication. This may lead to a decrease in their overall caloric intake, which can result in weight loss.
Aside from reducing anxiety-related eating habits, Xanax can also directly suppress appetite. This is likely due to the drug’s effects on GABA activity. In addition to controlling activity levels, GABA also plays a role in appetite regulation by helping to regulate hormones that stimulate hunger and fullness. More specifically, GABA blocks the hunger signals in the body when it detects that it has had enough food.
When GABA is increased due to Xanax use, this process is enhanced, leading to appetite suppression. Decreased appetite is one of the most common side effects of taking Xanax, so even people who don’t have disordered eating habits may find that their desire to eat has decreased. In most people, however, this effect is mild and may only result in a small amount of weight loss when Xanax is taken as prescribed.
Reasons for Weight Changes Caused by Xanax Abuse
Taking Xanax in higher doses or without a prescription can lead to more pronounced physical side effects. Changes in weight are not uncommon, and they can be significant and sometimes life-threatening.
Abusing Xanax can cause even more prominent sedation than that experienced at the therapeutic dose. Due to the drug’s effects on GABA activity in the body, people who abuse Xanax tend to experience extreme lethargy. Some may regularly black out for periods of time, while others may sleep for days on end. Even those who remain conscious may have trouble with basic motor functions, making it difficult to engage in physical activities.
This can be particularly troublesome for individuals who have been taking the drug in higher doses for an extended period of time. In addition to the other risks associated with this level of sedation, it can also lead to weight gain in some people due to low levels of physical activity and decreased caloric expenditure.
Nausea and Vomiting
Taking any drug in higher-than-prescribed doses can cause nausea and vomiting — and Xanax is no different in this regard. Nausea and vomiting are possible side effects of therapeutic doses of Xanax, but they become even more likely — and intense — when the drug is taken in excess or in combination with other substances such as alcohol.
While a few bouts of nausea and vomiting are unlikely to have a dramatic impact on weight, the habitual abuse of Xanax could lead to significant weight fluctuations. Frequent vomiting prevents the body from properly digesting and absorbing nutrients, which can lead to malnutrition and significant weight loss over time.
There is hope for people who have experienced weight changes due to long-term Xanax abuse. The physical effects of Xanax abuse can often be reversed, but abruptly stopping or significantly reducing a long-term Xanax habit without proper support could worsen the weight changes among other symptoms.
When someone stops using Xanax suddenly after having taken it in high doses for a long period of time, the body needs time to adjust to the sudden change. This period of adjustment, also known as withdrawal, can last anywhere from a few days to a year, with the worst of the symptoms happening around one to two weeks after the substance has left the body.
While each individual experiences withdrawal slightly differently, it is often associated with the following symptoms:
- New or worsening anxiety or depression
- Agitation and irritability
- Hypersensitivity to stimuli
- Trouble concentrating
- Muscle spasms
- Dry wrenching and vomiting
- Bloating and constipation
- Loss of appetite
The biggest weight-related risk when it comes to withdrawal is weight loss. While some of these symptoms, such as bloating and constipation, may result in minor weight gain, the combination of nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea often leads to significant weight loss. And in people already at risk for malnutrition due to long-term Xanax abuse, this can be particularly dangerous.
Despite the potential risks of withdrawal, it is possible to safely and successfully overcome a Xanax dependence. However, it’s always best to do so under the supervision of a medical professional. Treatment centers and addiction counselors can provide the support and guidance needed to safely transition off of the drug, and doctors may be able to prescribe medications that will help lessen the intensity of withdrawal symptoms.
Take the First Step Toward Recovery
If you or someone you love is struggling with Xanax abuse or addiction, recovery is within reach. Here at Recreate Life Counseling, we’ve seen firsthand how the right substance abuse treatment can help people reclaim their lives. And because we take a personalized approach to treatment, we address the underlying issues that often fuel substance abuse, rather than just managing the symptoms.
Mental health issues and substance use disorders often go hand-in-hand, so if mental health issues are also a factor in your situation, our dual diagnosis treatment programs in Boynton Beach, Florida, can provide the multilayered support you need to address both simultaneously. We’ve helped countless individuals find hope and healing, and we’d love to help you do the same. Contact us today to get started.