The benzodiazepines are a class of drugs typically prescribed for the treatment of anxiety or chronic seizure. They work by slowing the electrical activity in the brain, resulting in a sedative effect. Doctors may prescribe these drugs for brief or prolonged periods, or simply as needed—such as in the event of a panic attack. The potential adverse effects of benzodiazepines are fairly well understood by the medical community. People may experience drowsiness, headache, dizziness, and an unsteady feeling. High doses have an intoxicating effect similar to alcohol consumption.
However, the effect of chronic low doses of medications like Xanax (alprazolam) and Klonopin (clonazepam) on human tissue and organs is still to be determined. Previous studies have suggested that long-term administration of benzodiazepines may weaken the immune system, although no conclusive evidence of such a link exists.
A clinical experiment with rats tested the effects of Klonopin and Xanax on stressed and nonstressed male rats. The stress procedure involved confining the rats to a small mesh cage for 2.5 hours each morning. Some rats received Klonopin, some Xanax, and others only a control solution of distilled water. The study continued for four weeks, after which the rats were euthanized and the clinicians carefully examined them. The research team was most interested in the health of the immune system, and they primarily investigated lymph glands and blood cell counts. The findings have implications for the treatment of anxiety in humans.
Both stressed and nonstressed rats showed immune system deficits after treatment with either Klonopin or Xanax. Rats treated with Xanax demonstrated the most serious deficits, possibly because of the medication’s unique chemical structure. Because of the experimental design, researchers were able to distinguish between immune deficiencies caused by stress alone and those caused by medication. Nonstressed, medicated rats showed less decline than their stressed counterparts, but the decline was still clinically meaningful. It’s worth noting also that these rats received relatively low doses of medication. Continued administration beyond four weeks might reveal even more profound immune system effects.
These results argue for more caution when prescribing anti-anxiety medications. Both Xanax and Klonopin appear to degrade the immune system in distinct ways. Overall, Klonopin’s effects were less severe than those of Xanax, but were still worrisome. Patients with already compromised immune systems may want to avoid this class of medications if possible. Otherwise, Klonopin may be the safest choice. In addition, short-term use of the drug is definitely preferable to a long-term prescription.
- Elmesallamy, G. E., Abass, M. A., Refat, N., and Atta, A. H. (2011). Differential effects of alprazolam and clonazepam on the immune system and blood vessels of non-stressed and stressed adult male albino rats. Interdisciplinary Toxicology, 4(3), 132-143.
- PubMed Health [Internet]. (n.d.). Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine. Alprazolam. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0000807/
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