Benzo Belly: What It Is and What You Can Do About It
Last Updated: November 3, 2023
“Benzo belly” is a long-lasting withdrawal symptom that affects the intestines. It can occur when someone quits using a benzodiazepine medication.
What Is “Benzo Belly?”
“Benzo belly” is a slang term used to describe the long-term effects that benzodiazepine withdrawal can have on the intestines. Benzos slow down intestinal movements. During withdrawal, these movements are sped up until the body readjusts. The body can take a very long time — sometimes a year or more — to readjust the nerve cells in the intestines.
As the intestines struggle to adjust to the absence of benzos, distressing symptoms that last for several months can occur. The condition causes bloating and chronic gastrointestinal problems that can be very distressing, likely the source of the name “benzo belly.”
Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs used medically to treat anxiety or reduce the likelihood of seizures. They work by enhancing the effect of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which suppresses brain signals and leads to sedative and calming effects. While benzodiazepines are generally safe for short-term use, prolonged use can lead to dependence and withdrawal symptoms, making it essential for their use to be carefully managed by healthcare professionals.
Common Benzodiazepine Medications
Numerous benzodiazepine medications exist, each with slightly different characteristics and approved uses. Some of the most common include:
- Alprazolam (Xanax): Often used to treat anxiety disorders.
- Diazepam (Valium): Used for several conditions, including anxiety, muscle spasms and alcohol withdrawal.
- Clonazepam (Klonopin): Primarily used to treat seizure disorders.
- Lorazepam (Ativan): Often used for anxiety and as a preoperative sedative.
- Temazepam (Restoril): Typically used for short-term treatment of insomnia.
As with any medication, the appropriate benzodiazepine depends on the patient’s condition, other medications they may be taking and their overall health.
How Benzodiazepines Affect the Body
Benzodiazepines, also called benzos, stimulate receptors in the brain called GABA receptors. These receptors create brain signals that suppress other signals and calm the body. When benzos stimulate GABA receptors, it suppresses the neurological system and creates a feeling of calm and relaxation.
Side Effects of Benzodiazepines
Benzos act on more than just emotions, however. The drugs also suppress other neurological functions, including the speed of digestion. Benzos will slow digestion, potentially causing constipation.
With prolonged use, benzos can become addictive and rewire the brain to accommodate the drug’s continual presence in the bloodstream. When benzos are stopped, the body must suddenly readjust to the absence of the drug. Withdrawal symptoms will occur until this readjustment is complete.
Symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Generalized achiness
What Causes Benzo Belly?
Because benzo belly is relatively uncommon, its cause is not fully understood. However, most medical researchers believe that benzo belly occurs because the constant presence of benzos causes chemical changes and physically rewires nerves in the intestines.
When benzos are no longer present, the rewired nerves in the intestines no longer function as they did when benzos were available. This requires these nerves to alter their wiring to function how they did before benzos were used. The process can take several months to over a year.
Benzo Belly Symptoms
Benzo belly symptoms differ based on the individual and severity of withdrawal. Typically, benzo belly symptoms include:
- Swelling and bloating of the belly
- Excessive gas
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
The severity of these symptoms may be very different for each individual, and some people may need professional medical treatment to manage their symptoms. If you have benzo belly symptoms, you should seek medical help from a doctor.
How Long Does Benzo Belly Last?
The symptoms of benzo belly can last for varying periods, often extending for several months. There are even reports of some cases where the condition persisted for more than a year.
Although benzo belly can be a long-lasting symptom of benzo withdrawal, it is also important to note that benzo withdrawal often causes short-term stomach problems during acute withdrawal. Benzo belly only refers to stomach-related symptoms beyond the acute withdrawal period.
Preventing Benzo Belly
The simplest way to prevent benzo belly is not to use benzos for extended periods. If you have been using a benzo for over a few weeks, you should explore stopping if possible. If a doctor prescribed you a benzo, you should discuss quitting with them. Your doctor can help you substitute the benzo for another medication or provide other input that can help.
Managing Your Benzodiazepine Use
Proper management of benzodiazepine use is crucial for those who have been prescribed a benzo. These drugs should always be taken exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Misuse can lead to dependency and withdrawal issues and a host of physical and mental health concerns. You should never take these drugs unless a doctor has prescribed them.
If you feel your use is becoming problematic, wish to discontinue the medication or find that you are using them more than you should, you should consult your physician. Sudden discontinuation can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms if you have become dependent on benzos. Regular check-ins with your healthcare provider can ensure that your dose is appropriate and your usage is safe and effective without becoming problematic.
Alternative Treatments for Anxiety and Insomnia
While medications like benzos can effectively manage symptoms of anxiety and insomnia, they’re not the only approach. In fact, depending on medications can turn them into a crutch and become unhealthy.
Many patients find relief through alternative or complementary treatments, which can be used with or instead of traditional pharmacological treatments. Techniques such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga can help manage stress and foster better sleep habits. Regular physical exercise, consistent sleep schedules and limiting caffeine and alcohol can also contribute to better mental health and improved sleep. The best solution will differ for everyone, and it’s important to find the best combination of methods for you.
Benzo Belly Relief
Finding relief for benzo belly will be a top priority for those struggling. There are no medically proven treatments that can heal this condition — the only thing that will cure it is time, as the nerves in the intestines must slowly rewire themselves. However, some actions can help optimize your recovery and potentially reduce the symptoms of benzo belly. The main change that can help with benzo belly involves altering your diet to be more friendly to your gut health.
Benzo Belly Diet
While no medically approved benzo belly diet exists, dietary changes may help improve benzo belly symptoms. These changes include:
- Reduce your intake of inflammatory foods like spicy foods, coffee and alcohol.
- Avoid processed, sugary foods that may irritate your gut.
- Take probiotics to help improve digestive health.
- Use a high-fiber diet to help improve your overall digestive health.
- Keep a food diary and use it to track which foods make your symptoms worse.
- Avoid medications that irritate the belly, such as NSAIDs.
Find Treatment for Benzodiazepine Withdrawal
Benzodiazepine withdrawal can create many uncomfortable and even potentially dangerous symptoms. Getting professional treatment during benzo withdrawal can improve your safety and comfort, which helps make the process less unpleasant. It also improves the chances that you will successfully complete the withdrawal process. Professional treatment can also help you manage symptoms that may develop, like benzo belly.
At The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper, we are dedicated to helping people in New Jersey have a safe, comfortable withdrawal experience that positions them for long-term success and sobriety. Contact us today to learn how we can help you achieve lasting freedom from benzo addiction.
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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.