The Benzo Bends

This article explores the potential problems with long-term use of anti-anxiety medication and the importance of re-humanising the treatment of emotional distress. The original article, published in the Irish Examiner can be read here



By Liz Dunphy

Every morning Carmel wakes up from a fitful, toxic sleep in her Tipperary home. Her whole body vibrates like an internal jackhammer is belting her from inside — a loud sharp tinnitus floods her brain with distracting noise, her muscles forget how to function and her skin feels too tight for her body.

These are just some of the symptoms that have plagued Carmel for 19 long months since she stopped taking low daily doses of Valium which she was prescribed since August 2007.

Valium (or diazepam) is a benzodiazepine, a drug mostly used to treat anxiety disorders and muscle spasms. Benzodiazepines enhance the effect of the brain’s tranquilising neurotransmitter GABA which slows down over-activity to reduce symptoms of anxiety.

Many others could be experiencing Carmel’s painful and isolating withdrawal symptoms in Ireland today. The 2012 HSE PCRS report which lists the 100 medications most frequently prescribed to medical card patients ranked diazepam as the 26th most prescribed drug in Ireland, having dropped one place in Ireland’s drug popularity stakes from 25th place in 2011.

There is no official data on how frequently private prescriptions for benzodiazepines are issued, but Minister Kathleen Lynch says benzodiazepines are being excessively prescribed.

“We have to take a serious look at prescribing practices across the whole Department of Health, the problem is not just limited to psychiatric illnesses,” says Minister Lynch.

Ivor Browne is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at UCD, he was the Chief Psychiatrist of the Eastern Health Board and he is an eminent author on mental health.

Browne believes that benzodiazepines can be useful for relieving temporary anxiety but they should not be used on any regular or long-term basis because they are habit-forming.

“Anything that removes anxiety will be potentially addictive,” says Browne.

“Valium or its generic form Anxicalm can be effective, but all of these drugs are grossly overused, the person experiencing difficulties must work to overcome the traumas they have suffered with the support of a therapist.

“Psychotherapy, when it’s effectively undertaken, is the only real therapy. And Prozac and all other SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, used as antidepressants) are actually dangerous and in my opinion should never be used,” says Browne.

“Everything is disconnected in our society when everything in reality is interconnected, this needs to change to solve our societal problems.

“We need to recognise that the heart is our real centre, not the brain. All our emotional life is centred in the heart and there are more messages going from the heart to the brain than vice-versa. There’s an awful lot yet to be understood,” says Browne.

Prof David Healy is the Professor of Psychopharmacology at Bangor University in Wales, he is Irish and his innovative website  invites people to research and report the benefits and side effects experienced when using prescription drugs. People can record their experiences on the website which will generate a free RxISK report that they can bring to their own doctor.

The gathered accounts form a database that aims to make medicine safer for patients. Healy believes it can also help to equalise power between doctors and patients by giving patients an option to record their symptoms with other medical professionals for free. And Healy believes that equalising that power is vital to improving our healthcare system.

“In the 1960s drugs were viewed as poisons. The magic of medicine was that doctors could use poison to produce good. Industry has changed this model, turning pharmaceuticals into something to be used as a fertiliser, to be sprinkled widely, but these drugs are generally tested on people for four to six weeks, not for the months or years that people are actually prescribed them for.

“The human body can take poisons for a month — but not for indefinite, constant periods of time without doing damage,” says Healy.

Bridget Hayes, a mother of three is from Limerick, she was prescribed Xanax for 20 years to treat anxiety which began when she experienced thyroid problems.

“I feel like I’ve lost 20 years of my life. I was turned into an addict. I went to hospital as a day patient for years and no one said that I shouldn’t be on all these medications for so long, no one ever mentioned that they could be addictive either,” says Hayes.

“And they never offered counselling, even though they had a psychotherapist in that hospital. They just dish out tablets, and there are obviously reasons why people feel anxious or depressed which they need to talk about and understand. Psychotherapy should be the first port of call for these problems.”

Echoing concerns voiced by Prof Healy and Prof Browne about the additional dangers of SSRIs, Hayes noted that when an SSRI called Seroxat was added to her drug cocktail things got even worse.

“On Seroxat I lost all emotion, I couldn’t feel anything and I didn’t care about anyone, least of all myself. I had never had depression before but this anti-depressant made me feel suicidal. I started drinking heavily and I tried to kill myself a few times.”

Hayes realised that the medication was making her worse, and asked to stop.

“Dr Terry Lynch saved me. I read his book Beyond Prozac and I recognised myself in it. I started the Ashton method with Dr Lynch to come off Xanax, he taught me coping strategies and he’s a huge support,” says Hayes.

The Ashton method is a protocol for benzodiazepine withdrawal developed by Professor Heather Ashton, an Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psycho-pharmacology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in which you slowly reduce your dose while managing your symptoms. The Ashton Manual, which includes tapering schedules, is available on

“Once I came off Xanax and only took small doses of Valium I suddenly regained feelings and memories,” says Hayes. “My parents died a few years ago but I cried over their deaths for the first time recently, I had been so numbed by medication that I couldn’t feel any emotions.”

Hayes still has good and bad days but she has learned coping mechanisms, like deep breathing to deal with anxiety without medication.

“I feel cheated from so many years of my life. I have to go through hell to get off the medication and the people who put me on it can’t help me. The receptors in my brain are still damaged from the medication and it will take time to heal,” says Hayes.

“And it’s such a contradiction, these drugs are known to cause depression and anxiety as a side effect, yet people are prescribed them to treat those very symptoms.”

Dr Terry Lynch who helped Hayes with her benzodiazepine withdrawal, practiced as a GP before noticing problems in how medicine addressed mental health issues. He writes books on the topic (including a best seller Beyond Prozac, and a new book Depression Delusion, Vol.

One: The Myth of the Brain Chemical Imbalance, published this month). He now works full time helping people to improve their mental health through a combination of emotional, psychological and physical interventions, including medication.

“The existence of brain chemical imbalances, which psychiatric drugs are supposedly designed to correct, has never been scientifically verified. It’s a widely promoted and accepted myth. The pain and distress are very real but the chemical imbalance is not.

“These problems need to be addressed from a broader perspective, one that includes the emotional and psychological aspects of the person as well as the physical.

“The starting point should be seeking to make sense of people’s experiences and emotions at a human level,” says Lynch.

“Generally the medical profession now accept that benzodiazepines can be addictive and can cause difficult withdrawal symptoms but that awareness came belatedly.”

Lynch is concerned that a similarly delayed recognition of the potential problems with SSRIs may be currently unfolding. “As a society, we need to reconsider whether a biologically-dominated model for emotional and mental health and wellbeing is best for people or not,” he says.

Unexpected journeys can begin in the most mundane of ways. Mary*, a young mother from Tipperary fell off a slide while on holiday when holding her four-year-old on her lap.

“I got burning nerve pains after the fall, I thought that I had a degenerative neurological disease and I got quite depressed. My GP gave me an anti-depressant called sertraline (a SSRI), Xanax (alprazolam — a benzodiazepine) and the sleeping pill zopiclone ( a Z drug that works in a very similar way to benzodiazepines).

“Four weeks later I experienced severe, deep twitching in my legs and I still had burning nerve pains. I went to see a consultant who prescribed amitriptyline which worked well and ended my nerve pain, but afterwards I was hospitalised for tachycardia, which was actually quite lucky because the hospital diagnosed drug-induced arrhythmia, so I knew then that the medication was causing problems.”

Mary* only took the medication for six weeks but she has battled withdrawal symptoms for 13 months. “I asked to come off the medication and I didn’t crave it at all but my body and brain just couldn’t adapt quickly to functioning without them. But my cousin took them for three to four months and stopped taking them with no problems, so we all react differently,” says Mary*.

“I found that my symptoms matched the benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms others reported on the internet. I learned that certain substances, like sugar and alcohol really aggravated my symptoms because they excite the nervous system, and MSG is a neurotoxin anyway so this worsens my symptoms too.

“Once I had information I felt more in control of what was happening. But Baylissa Frederick really saved me, she set up great online resources and a counselling website Without Baylissa’s help and support I’d either be on a very hard, painful, lonely road or else I’d be dead.”

Baylissa Frederick, the woman that Mary* attributes with helping her to cope with withdrawal, was first prescribed the benzodiazepine clonazepam in early 1998 for dystonia, a movement disorder.

“I didn’t know the drug was addictive until I started feeling unwell, I exhausted diagnostic tests and had multiple emergency visits to casualty, before I found the Ashton Manual online.”

“Of all the people I’ve supported, 90% found out the drug was the cause of their problems via the internet and asked their doctors to come off it. They print off tapering schedules from the Ashton Manual to bring to their doctors.

“For those on the drug who plan to stop taking it, never stop abruptly. Speak to your doctor and find a tapering schedule that is safe and not rushed.”

Frederick believes that normal emotions such as grief and stress are now pathologised.

Instead of allowing people to process these feelings and deal with them through talking and human support, people visit their GPs and end up with a prescription to a drug that could potentially cause them further problems.

“Many of the people I support were put on benzos, z-drugs and antidepressants for normal reactions to grief. At first I was shocked at how many had become dependent on these meds because of a bereavement,” says Frederick.

“Benzodiazepines basically put a chemical cushion between you and reality,” says Dr John Dunphy, a GP in Carrigaline, Co Cork, “that cushion can be very useful if you hit a rocky patch that is too uncomfortable to bear temporarily — but the problem is that that cushion can also smother you if it’s not closely monitored.”

Healthy eating slows down mental decline

Good news for your brain and body today! A new study shows that healthy eating slows down cognitive decline.

An article about the study was published in this week’s Irish Medical Times, we’ve copied it below for you to read, and we’ve peppered the article with some videos showing quick, easy and healthy recipe demonstrations.

Happy eating!


A comprehensive programme providing older people at risk of dementia with healthy eating guidance, exercise, brain training, and management of metabolic and vascular risk factors appears to slow down cognitive decline, according to the first ever randomised controlled trial of its kind, published in The Lancet.

In the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER) study, researchers led by Prof Miia Kivipelto from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, National Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki, and University of Eastern Finland, assessed the effects on brain function of a comprehensive intervention aimed at addressing some of the most important risk factors for age-related dementia, such as high body-mass index and heart health.

A total of 1,260 people from across Finland, aged 60–77 years, were included in the study, with half randomly allocated to the intervention group, and half allocated to a control group, who received regular health advice only.

All of the study participants were deemed to be at risk of dementia, based on standardised test scores.


The intensive intervention consisted of regular meetings over two years with physicians, nurses, and other health professionals, with participants given comprehensive advice on maintaining a healthy diet, exercise programmes including both muscle and cardiovascular training, brain training exercises, and management of metabolic and vascular risk factors through regular blood tests, and other means.

After two years, study participants’ mental function was scored using a standard test, the Neuropsychological Test Battery (NTB), where a higher score corresponds to better mental functioning.



Overall test scores in the intervention group were 25 per cent higher than in the control group.

For some parts of the test, the difference between groups was even more striking — for executive functioning (the brain’s ability to organise and regulate thought processes) scores were 83 per cent higher in the intervention group, and processing speed was 150 per cent higher.


Based on a pre-specified analysis, the intervention appeared to have no effect on patients’ memory. However, based on post-hoc analyses, there was a difference in memory scores between the intervention and control groups.

According to Prof Kivipelto, much previous research has shown that there are links between cognitive decline in older people and factors such as diet, heart health, and fitness. “However, our study is the first large randomised controlled trial to show that an intensive programme aimed at addressing these risk factors might be able to prevent cognitive decline in elderly people who are at risk of dementia.”


The vaccination debate….

This letter was sent to the Irish Medical Times by Dr Neville Wilson, Medical Director at The Leinster Clinic, Maynooth.

On vaccination: Being devil’s advocate for concerned parents


The Swansea measles outbreak in 2012 occurred despite a massive immunisation campaign in the UK


In characteristic combatant style, Dr Ruairi Hanleyreprimands parents of unvaccinated children and attributes blame to them for the spontaneous outbreaks of measles in communities abroad and at home. (‘Battling the anti-vaccination brigade’, IMT, February 20, 2015).

His recommended punishment is the withholding of child benefits from children whose parents fail to provide a vaccination certificate, as proof of their compliance.

Dr Hanley is uninhibited in his attack on the pedigree of such parents, portraying them as “believers in quackery and pseudo-science”, despite the likelihood of them being middle-class citizens and highly educated, and possibly even well informed.

Without any reservation, or recognition that their reasons may be science based and authentic, he acts as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, and metes out a judgment that many physicians would brand as unjustly harsh.

While I am not opposed to vaccines in principle, I clearly understand that all is not well within the industry, and that many of the concerns expressed by anxious parents are entirely justified. As caring physicians we would be remiss if we failed to listen to the troubled voices of those whose primary concern is the legitimate protection of their children when threats loom.

I have encountered many of these health conscious and concerned parents, and am mindful of the unjust accusations launched against them by persons who are invariably less informed about matters of health.

For that reason I offer myself as devil’s advocate on their behalf.

Questions about the contents of popular vaccines, such as neurotoxins, carcinogens, toxic metals, foreign animal and viral DNA, are entirely legitimate, and their harmful impact on the delicate immune system of the developing brain in young children cannot simply be dismissed without evidence to the contrary. Many insightful parents, who believe in scientific integrity, are thus asking questions about vaccine safety.

These people do not believe in “pseudo-science”. They trust in good science and expect good science to answer their questions truthfully.

Dr Russell Blaylock, a respectable neurosurgeon and expert on excitotoxins, believes that most of the damage caused by vaccines is hidden, and that vaccines in fact suppress, rather than stimulate, immunity.

The backdrop for Dr Hanley’s case against conscientious objectors to enforced vaccination is the recent outbreak of measles in Disneyland, USA, purportedly caused by an unvaccinated visitor to the entertainment centre.

That premature assumption, however, has been dismissed as being groundless, leaving the cause of the outbreak unknown, and purely speculative.

Outbreaks of measles are reported regularly from various countries, with 644 cases being reported in the US in 2004.

In recent years, outbreaks have occurred in the Philippines and in France, and often occurring in unvaccinated, as well as in highly vaccinated communities.

In a New York measles outbreak in 2004, 18 of the 20 people with measles had already been vaccinated against the disease. Was the outbreak caused by the two unvaccinated children, or by the shedding of the live virus by the 18 vaccinated children?

Shedding refers to the common occurrence of vaccinated children carrying live viruses and transmitting them to others through respiratory droplets or urine during the early days following vaccination. Measles outbreaks can theoretically be caused by this method in highly vaccinated communities.

In Colorado, a similar outbreak occurred in 1991, in a community that had a vaccine rate of 98 per cent. It is entirely plausible that the outbreak was caused by vaccinated, rather than unvaccinated children.

The Swansea measles outbreak in 2012 occurred despite a massive immunisation campaign in the UK.

The NEJM reports a measles outbreak in Texas in 1981, in which 99 per cent of the population had been vaccinated. Was the 1 per cent or the 99 per cent to blame for the outbreak?

While one popular, and plausible explanation for these measles outbreaks is the large scale importation of unvaccinated people from other countries across these borders, it was not the case in the Disneyland outbreak.

Another less perceived cause of measles outbreaks is vaccine failure, which may be primary or secondary.

Primary vaccine failure occurs in a small number of vaccines where poor vaccine uptake fails to establish the required level of seroconversion, leaving the individual unprotected, and in need of a second or ‘booster dose’, usually at school entry age.

Secondary vaccine failure is caused by waning immunity in the vaccinated person, resulting in greater susceptibility to the measles virus, and harboured potential for spreading the virus to others.

Primary and secondary vaccination failure may lead to the paradoxical situation whereby measles in highly immunised societies occurs primarily among those previously vaccinated.

Are all vaccines safe?
In a US Congressional hearing, a representative of the Centre for Diseases Control (CDC) boldly asserted that all vaccines “were safe and highly effective, and the best way for parents to protect their kids”.

When asked whether there was any scientific evidence that vaccines caused autism, they replied in the negative, reaffirming that all vaccines are safe. When asked about the risks of contracting the measles infection, they offered the fearsome warning about the potential for “death, pneumonia and encephalitis, and other brain disorders”.

Notably, the CDC spokes-person omitted to make reference to the measles vaccine package insert, which in small print, warns of similar conditions being caused by the vaccine, i.e. “death, pneumonia and cerebral disorders” like SSPE, among many others.

Adverse outcomes from measles infections may occur, but these are rare and usually benign, with more severe outcomes likely to be found amongst children whose health and immune status has been compromised by conditions of inadequate hygiene and nutrition, overcrowding, and pre-existing medical conditions.

During the measles outbreak in Swansea, Wales (2012-2013), 664 cases were reported, with one death documented, and that of a 25-year-old male who developed pneumonia after contracting measles.

It was established that he had a compromised health status, was in poor health, and was being treated for alcohol addiction.

Measles mortality
It is well established that measles has a low mortality rate in well nourished, healthy children. Despite this documented fact, scaremongering tactics are commonplace in the popular media, warning of impending death from measles infection, more recently being branded as the ‘killer disease’.

A BMJ editorial in 1963 argued that “measles is a mild disease, and many patients and doctors may feel that no protective agent is required”.

In a 1980 BMJ edition, Prof George Dick, vaccine expert, advocated that a “mild wild measles virus should run its natural course in order to give natural life-long protection to the healthy children of the community, and to offer vaccine selectively to those who are most vulnerable”.

Information from the Vaccine Adverse Reporting System (VAERS) reveals that there have been no measles deaths in the US since 2003, whereas there have been 108 deaths reported due to measles vaccines. We cannot blame intelligent parents for raising concerns in the light of these disturbing statistics.

There are also interesting statistics that show a natural decline in measles, as with all other common infectious diseases, prior to the advent of vaccines, certainly so in the US, where great alarm is being expressed in the media by the current outbreaks.

The mean annual mortality for measles also declined in England and Wales from 1900 to 1950, long before the measles vaccine was introduced there in 1967.

I served in a remote Mission Hospital in rural Africa from 1980 to 1982, where infected children from remote villages were frequently admitted for a variety of childhood infectious diseases, including measles. I do not recall any hospital deaths from measles during this period, but many did contact pneumonia, as a secondary bacterial infection, and these were invariably well managed with standard medical care and appropriate nutrition.

So, is measles the ‘killer disease’ as it is often purported to be? And can the safety of all vaccines be guaranteed?

Compensation grants
The Vaccine Injury Com-pensation Programme (VICP) has so far paid out $2.6 trillion as compensation in 3,535 awards for autism and vaccine damaged children. Vaccine courts in the US and Italy have clearly ruled that certain vaccines have been causally linked to autism, and have accordingly paid substantial amounts in compensation to vaccine-injured children. A similar ruling in a UK court in 2010 implicated the MMR vaccine in brain damage being caused by the MMR vaccine, and awarded compensation for vaccine damages to the victim.

A pharmaceutical and vaccine producer has also been accused of falsifying test data to fabricate a vaccine efficiency rate of 95 per cent or higher, in order to promote evidence of vaccine efficacy to the public.

In the light of these devastating events, the assurances by the CDC that all vaccines are safe and effective has, I believe, a somewhat hollow sound.

A CDC whistle-blower has also recently claimed similar questionable behaviour within the Centers, and the wrongful cover-up of data revealing vaccine harm to vulnerable children.

On August 27, 2014, Dr William Thompson, a senior scientist with the CDC, admitted to omitting data for the 2004 edition of the journal Pediatrics, which critics of vaccinations point out implicate African-American males who were at great risk for autism following the MMR vaccine before the age of 36 months.

Editor writes:
(Dr Thompson’s remarks were apparently secretly filmed and posted on YouTube, with a narration by Andrew Wakefield, by an anti-vaccination lobby group. In a statement, the CDC explained how the 2004 study looked at all children recruited and a smaller set of 355 children with autism and 1,020 without for whom they had Georgia state birth certificates.

“Access to the information on the birth certificates allowed researchers to assess more complete information on race as well as other important characteristics, including possible risk factors for autism such as the child’s birth weight, mother’s age, and education. This information was not available for the children without birth certificates; hence CDC study did not present data by race on black, white, or other race children from the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates.”)

It is therefore not surprising that well informed parents have legitimate concerns about vaccine safety and efficacy, and are seeking assurances from those of us who should be equally well informed and concerned.

Their concerns are reinforced by knowledge of legislated immunity being granted to vaccine manufacturers that protects them from litigation in the event of vaccine harm.

Dr Hanley describes these concerned parents as being ignorant about matters of science, and believers in ‘pseudo-science’.

However, a Dutch study reports that these parents are likely to be intelligent and well informed, a finding replicated in a Swiss study in 2005. And a UK survey in 2003 revealed that one-third of family doctors were troubled by the increasing load of infant vaccines being propagated.

Some of these serious-minded parents are patients of mine, and I cannot ignore their concerns. How do we as caring physicians respond to them?

The condemnation of concerned parents who seek assurances of vaccine safety is clearly unwarranted, and the recommendations to withhold child benefits from their children is an unjust and inappropriate response.

Our mandate as physicians is to hear the valid concerns of our patients and to respond to them with compassion and with reason, in ways that are scientifically supported, clinically safe and ethically sound.

Dr Neville Wilson,
Medical Director,
The Leinster Clinic,

Science shows a high fat and low carb’ diet will make you lose weight

In this letter to the Irish Examiner Dr. Garry Lee explains his findings on weight loss diets. We hope you find it interesting.

I’ve been studying this area intensively for at least two years.

I’m a retired doctor and have the time to do so in a degree of detail which no working doctor could do. The world population is getting fatter and there is huge increase in diabetes etc which is going to make the health services unaffordable for one country after another.

There’s a huge amount written about obesity and a lot of research devoted to it but the science is there and is being ignored.

What does the science tell us? It tells us things that are quite non-intuitive:

1. Exercise is pretty poor for weight loss despite all the Operation Transformation stuff. I’ve cycled a huge amount for 30+ years and it alone failed to keep me thin.

2. Even though fat has twice the calories per gram of protein or carbohydrates, those who eat the most fat are the thinnest (a robust finding of the famous Framingham study). That is because they eat less carbs and because fat and protein are satiating.

3. Sugar and refined starch (carbs) are probably the main bad boy in the obesity epidemic . The advice to cut fat and eat more carbs had the exact opposite effect of what theoretically was supposed to happen. The linking of fat to abnormal cholesterol profiles in the blood has not stood up well under scientific scrutiny and in fact it is the sugar/carbs which are driving it.

4 There is a collection of symptoms and signs called the Metabolic Syndrome which includes a big belly, fatty liver, pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, gastric reflux, sleep apnoea and lipid disturbances promoting heart disease. All of these are reversed by a low carb’ / high fat diet. This dietary approach is no more a fad than farting is.

Some will say that some populations have always eaten a high proportion of carbs, like China or Japan. They did but the total load of carbs wasn’t huge and these people were working it off. Many don’t.

If you have familial obesity or diabetes etc, it’s likely that you are one of the 70% of the population who have what is called Insulin Resistance and in this case you will always be hungry if you eat a high carb diet and will get fat.

If you cut the carbs you will be satisfied and the weight usually falls off.

I lost 40lb, without being hungry, doing this and maintained it. There are at least 23 comparative trials of low carb’ vs other diets, all of which show it is best. It’s not only best for weight loss but best for diabetics (under medical supervision), for cardiac risk factors and for mood disorders,

Dr Garry Lee

Meryln Lawn