Xanax and wine: A cocktail for trouble

Feelings of paranoia and restlessness culminate with the sudden sensation of the head bouncing and shaking beyond control, entirely separate from the body. Drew Kanan, a Long Beach entrepreneur and recovering addict, recalls this experience during a trip to the emergency room when he had a seizure resulting from excessive use of Xanax and alcohol.

“The seizure was very intense, and I remember every moment of it,” he says. “The doctors didn’t understand my situation of large doses of benzos when I went in. I had zero control of my body. I remember everything while people were talking to me. I didn’t realize that I was flopping like a fish out of water, but I heard every word.”

According to Dr. Michael Brodsky, medical director of Bridges to Recovery, a residential treatment facility in Pacific Palisades, recreational use of the prescription drug Xanax, a brand name for the pharmaceutical alprazolam, is a rising epidemic.

“More people were rushed to ER for overdosing on prescription drugs like Xanax this year than [in] previous years,” Brodsky says.

Many may not be aware of the dangers of combining benzodiazepines like Xanax with alcohol.

An unemployed, self-proclaimed social drinker who wishes to remain anonymous, and lives out of a Pasadena motel with his Santa Monica College student girlfriend, recalls drinking alcohol while taking Xanax, and also waking up in the emergency room.

“I had eight to 10 milligrams of Xanax that day and a little to drink,” he says. “The only thing I remember is waking up in the hospital.”

Xanax is prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders, and dosages should begin at no more than .25 or .5 milligrams taken three times daily, according to the drug’s patient information leaflet, distributed by Pharmacia & Upjohn Co.

Doses are sometimes gradually increased on an individual basis, but the maximum dose recommended does not typically exceed four milligrams daily.

Kanan attributes the rise in recreational Xanax use to the general perception that the drug is socially acceptable, and the fact that heavy users are not likely to remember much the next day.

Memory impairment is one of the side effects of regular Xanax use, according to the patient information leaflet.

Roula Chavan, a pharmacist at a Santa Monica CVS, says that when alcohol and Xanax are combined, there is an increased risk of the adverse effects associated with the medication.

In addition to memory loss, these side effects can include dizziness, fatigue, loss of consciousness, coma, suicidal thoughts, irritability, and aggression, according to the drug’s package insert.

“Their effects can be synergistic, meaning that their combined effects can be greater than the sum of their individual effects,” Brodsky says.

Chavan states that alcohol combined with Xanax intensifies the feelings of drowsiness and intoxication dramatically. The pharmacist also claims that a prescription for Xanax is relatively easy to obtain.

“We don’t fill prescriptions when it’s a young person, especially if it’s also for Soma, another muscle relaxant drug,” she says, noting that prescriptions written for both medications can indicate a red flag.

Recalling his experiences overcoming his addiction, Kanan warns that death is possible during detox from alcohol and benzodiazepines. He also believes that the accessibility of Xanax proves problematic.

“Asking for a larger dose from the doctor is also very easy; as a result I almost died,” Kanan says.

When used as directed, Xanax has been proven to effectively treat the debilitating symptoms associated with anxiety and panic disorders, according to double blind clinical studies cited in the drug’s patient information leaflet. But the drug, a Schedule IV controlled substance, is addictive, and withdrawal symptoms can result if regular doses are not weaned off gradually.

Robert Savinelli of the SMC chemistry department says that alcohol is a catalyst that changes the enzyme that increases the metabolic rate of Xanax.

The drug already has a half-life that causes patients to feel a need to take more shortly after taking it, which contributes to its addictive nature.

Jack, a former SMC student who does not wish to disclose his last name, says that he has mixed Xanax and alcohol.

“I always drink with Xanax; it’s not a big deal,” he says. “I intentionally took Xanax with wine to get a buzz. It felt so good—like I was floating.”

According to Brodsky, the combination of Xanax and alcohol can dangerously affect the body’s impulse to breathe.

The doctor cites medical journals that state that Xanax and alcohol both inhibit the central nervous system, and together can lower heart and breathing rates to dangerous levels, resulting in unconsciousness and possibly death, as Xanax acts on the medulla, a part of the brain that regulates breathing.

“Today’s generation thinks it’s cool to take this muscle relaxer recreationally with alcohol,” Brodsky says. “However, should you pass out while driving, you risk serious injury or even death.”