Benadryl is a seemingly innocuous drug used by millions every day to combat pesky allergy symptoms. However, some people use the drug recreationally to induce, shall we say, off label effects. If you’re one of these folks, you’ll definitely want to read this post.
In this article, we take a deep dive into why Benadryl may not be as harmless as it seems, and how long-term use may have negative effects on brain health.
Along the way, you’ll learn five startling facts about Benadryl and addiction.
Ready? Let’s get started.
What is Benadryl?
Benadryl is the brand name of an antihistamine medication. Antihistamines are, of course, drugs that counter allergic reactions. However, Benadryl, in its most frequent incarnation as diphenhydramine, can also cause sleepiness and is used by some strictly for this attribute. Let’s strip the brand name away for a moment and talk about diphenhydramine, the drug behind the marketing curtain.
As an antihistamine, diphenhydramine reduces the amount of histamine in the body. Histamine is an organic compound that allows the body’s cells to react locally to invasive substances. Without histamine, foreign substances could do a great deal of damage as the immune system would not react to them in time. However, in some individuals, the histamine response seems to be overactive. This results in allergies, which can be seasonal. These allergies can also be triggered by exposure to certain foods.
Apart from being an antihistamine, diphenhydramine is also used to treat insomnia, symptoms of the common cold, nausea and even the tremor associated with parkinsonism.
This one drug is used to:
- Treat allergic reactions
- Induce sleepiness
- Relieve symptoms of cold and flu
- Treat symptoms of nausea
This one over the counter drug is used by a lot of people to treat a wide range of symptoms.
Could be this be problematic? We’ll shortly see.
For now, it’s enough to know that the drug is primarily used to relieve allergy symptoms in the short term.
The History of Benadryl
In the late 1930s, George Rieveschl, an American chemist, set out to find an alternative to scopolamine. Scopolamine was used at the time to treat nausea, vomiting and motion sickness, but the drug came with many side effects. In 1940, Rieveschl accepted a post in the Department of Chemical Engineering, at the University of Cincinnati. There, in his quest to find a more suitable alternative to scopolamine, he invented one of the first synthetic antihistamines instead.
Because diphenhydramine happened to reduce the amount of histamine in the body, it was an instant hit with allergy sufferers in early tests. The U.S. government approved the drug for use in 1946, and it was at first only available by prescription.
Parke, Davis & Company held the original patent, and they gave Rieveschl a hearty five percent for his efforts. This may not seem like much at first blush, but Benadryl had mass appeal as a remedy for seasonal allergies and sold well. Rieveschl enjoyed the fruits of his labor until 1964, when the original patent ran its course. At that point, a number of other pharmaceutical companies began producing their own versions of the drug.
In the 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration decided that Benadryl and its derivatives were safe enough, and they approved the drug for over-the-counter use.
Benadryl: Potential for Addiction
Today, opioids are by far the most widely abused substances. The U.S. alone consumes around 80 percent of opioids, and 130 people in the country die every day from overdoses. However, lurking in the shadows is an emerging health crisis, and this potential catastrophe may have its roots in the FDA’s decision to make Benadryl and similar drugs accessible over the counter.
Of course, there’s no doubt that Benadryl is safe if used as directed. Its effects on histamine are well understood, and its potential side effects are well documented.
But what of its effect on the brain?
More on that in a moment, but for now, let’s face facts: diphenhydramine is one of the most abused over the counter drugs. The drug comes in tablet, capsule or liquid form, and most people have easy access to it. It’s available in pharmacies, but it’s also sold in Wal-Mart, Target and grocery stores.
Some states in the U.S. have made it illegal for individuals under 18 to purchase diphenhydramine products, including Benadryl, Wal-Dryl and Nytol. However, this is far from the law of land, and the reality is that children can access the drug at any time.
What’s more, children as young as two years old are routinely given products containing diphenhydramine.
As mentioned, the drug isn’t just used to treat allergic reactions. It’s also used to treat symptoms of the common cold, motion sickness, nausea and insomnia.
It’s that last one, insomnia, that can prove a slippery slope. Many folks assume that because a drug is made OTC that it must be safe. As you might have guessed by now, individuals who develop a dependency on Benadryl often do so because they use the drug as a sleep aid.
Benadryl and the Brain
We’ll get into how Benadryl can impact brain performance in the long term in the next section. For now, let’s discuss the drug in a more general sense. Benadryl is a receptor antagonist. This means that when you consume it, it blocks receptors in the brain and body. In this case, that means the H1 histamine receptor.
Normally, when an allergen enters the body, these receptors activate. Activation of the H1 receptor causes the release of several neurochemicals, and it contributes to platelet-activating factor. Finally, activation of H1 leads to vascular permeability. All of these are immune responses that allow the body to deal with foreign substances.
Therefore, when the immune system becomes overly sensitive to harmless compounds, such as pollen or peanuts, Benadryl can help deal with these reactions by suppressing histamines.
When used as intended, then, Benadryl can be quite handy. But if abused, it begins to affect the brain in other ways. If used recreationally, it can produce intense relaxation, euphoria and even hallucinations. Of course, the severity and intensity of these side effects will vary by individual. However, with the advent of the Internet, word of these—potentially desirable—side effects have spread far and wide.
Note that Benadryl is also an anticholinergic. It blocks the action of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter. It’s this action that makes the drug a mind-altering substance.
But is Benadryl addictive? If it is possible to become hooked on it, how dangerous would such an addiction be? Let’s find out.
5 Things to Know About Benadryl Addiction
If you think Benadryl overuse is harmless, think again. The truth is, this drug does more than just suppress histamine. It impacts brain function at some very fundamental levels. Of course, if you use it as directed, it’s unlikely to cause long-term harm. But if you use the drug more than a few times a week, you may be setting yourself up for some nasty side effects.
#1 You May Develop Tolerance
Eventually, someone who abuses the drug may find that they need to take more and more to get high. For instance, they may have originally started using it to fight insomnia, and it may have worked well—for a while. But then they find themselves waking during the night. The same dose no longer works to help them stay asleep. Meanwhile, another person using it recreationally to trigger euphoria and hallucinations may suddenly find that their usual dose does neither.
This phenomenon is known as tolerance, and it’s the first step in developing dependency.
Tolerance develops when the body no longer responds to the drug in the same way. You find that you need a higher dose to achieve the same effect.
#2 It Can Be Addictive
Just because something doesn’t require a prescription doesn’t mean you can’t become addicted to it.
Indeed, it is possible to develop a psychological dependency on Benadryl, and to any drug containing diphenhydramine. Because Benadryl is a mind-altering substance, it can change how the brain works overtime. If you develop dependence on Benadryl, your brain will send signals to you—cravings—that will make you want to keep taking it. When you use, your brain rewards you by releasing feel good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine.
This is a dependency loop, and it can be very dangerous.
It’s important to note that the term ‘addiction’ does not refer to a person’s need to use. The actual need to use is referred to as ‘dependence.’ Addiction, on the other hand, is now recognized as a potentially chronic disease that may require long-term treatment to conquer. But, as we’ll see, managing addiction, and living a healthy, clean life, is possible.
If you’ve used Benadryl for recreational purposes, you’re at higher risk of developing dependency than if you used it only as directed.
You’re at even greater risk of developing Benadryl dependency if you use it to treat insomnia. Finally, the likelihood of developing dependency goes up substantially if you also use the drug in conjunction with sedatives.
Note: using Benadryl or other diphenhydramine products with sedatives greatly increases the risk of overdose and can result in respiratory failure.
If you believe you have Benadryl dependency, please seek help right away.
The bottom line:
Anyone who abuses diphenhydramine products can develop dependency, which can lead to addiction.
If you are dependent on diphenhydramine, you’ll find that it’s very hard to stop using it, even if you want to. You’ll get cravings and withdrawal symptoms if you don’t use.
#3 Benadryl Abuse is Linked to Dementia
In the paper, Cumulative Use of Strong Anticholinergics and Incident Dementia: A Prospective Cohort Study, Shelly L. Gray et al. makes the case that long-term use of anticholinergic medications such as Benadryl may lead to dementia.
Recall that Benadryl is an anticholinergic. This means that it directly affects the function of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Specifically, this drug interferes with acetylcholine. Well, it turns out that this neurotransmitter is involved in learning and memory, and that chronically interfering with its function may not be great for brain health.
In the above paper, Shelly Gray, of the University of Washington’s School of Pharmacy, states that people who used Benadryl and similar drugs were more likely to develop dementia in old age, and that risk scaled with dose. The long-term study tracked 3,500 people, aged 65 or older. Using data obtained by Group Health, the researchers were able to account for all prescription and OCT drugs taken in the 10 years prior to the binning of the study.
Of the 3,500 men and women in the study, 800 developed dementia in those 10 years. Most of those 800 individuals consumed products containing diphenhydramine.
Moreover, the more diphenhydramine they took, the more likely they were to develop dementia.
The bottom line:
Benadryl blocks a brain chemical called acetylcholine. This chemical is important for optimal brain health and operation.
This study implies that a relatively young person abusing diphenhydramine over the course of many years may be increasing their risk of developing neurological illness. Diphenhydramine affects brain function, and over time, this may cause damage. It must be said, however, that many drugs have a stronger impact on older folks than younger folks. But the fact remains that diphenhydramine interferes with the operation of vital neurotransmitters.
#4 Benadryl Has the Worst Side Effects of Any Antihistamine
Earlier, we explored the history of the drug, and we discovered that it’s quite old. Indeed, in the decades since its introduction, other antihistamines have been developed that yield the same result with fewer side effects. Moreover, scientists have since developed antihistamines that don’t work as sleep aids. These more targeted drugs have lower addictive potential.
Below is a list of the potential side effects of long-term Benadryl overuse.
- Memory Loss
- Impaired coordination
- Low blood pressure
- Inability to concentrate
- Blurred vision
- Dry mouth
- GERD or other dental issues
- Difficulty urinating
- Liver damage and dysfunction
Abusing any sleep aid can disturb your natural circadian rhythm. You can think of the circadian rhythm as a natural 24-hour clock running within your brain. This clock, set more or less to the rotation of the earth, helps your brain decide when you should be alert and when you should be sleepy. The circadian rhythm is also known as the sleep/wake cycle.
A person’s preferred sleep cycle, known as their chronotype, is determined by several factors, such as gender, age and genetics. This rhythm is rooted deep in the brain, so occasional use of sleep aids won’t affect it. But if you abuse Benadryl over the long-term, you may find that you get sleepy at odd times or feel alert when you should be sleepy.
Overcoming Addiction to Benadryl is Possible
If you abuse Benadryl or other sleep aids, there is hope. Dependency need not lead to addiction. In fact, compared to harder drugs like cocaine or heroin, withdrawal symptoms are quite manageable. However, many individuals allow this fact to lull them into a false sense of security.
Diphenhydramine addiction often has a significant psychological component. You may think that going cold turkey on your own may help you kick the habit, but even if it seems to work, for how long is your safety and sobriety guaranteed? If you feel that you’re psychologically dependent on Benadryl or any sleep aid, you may need more help to kick the habit for good.
A quality drug addiction facility can help you overcome the dependency once and for all, and detox is only one part of that process. The counselors in such a facility are trained to help you come to terms with the emotional root of dependency. With proven therapy modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you’ll learn to recognize thought distortions and other not-so-helpful mental habits that keep you stuck in a dependency loop.
You’ll finally break your dependence on sleep aids by learning to recognizing triggers that make you want to use.
If you know anyone who might benefit from reading this guide, please don’t hesitate to share!
The Hills is located in Los Angeles, California. Our residential treatment facility is staffed by people who know just how difficult the road to recovery can be. We’ll make sure that you get the most out of every single minute of your rehabilitation in our facility and break your bond with benadryl so that you can get your life back on track. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you on your own journey to sobriety.