Valium vs. Xanax: Potency, Differences, Similarities

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Xanax and Valium are similar prescription drugs available through your doctor. They’re both used to treat a similar set of issues, many of them related to anxiety disorders. Though they’re both useful treatment options with a lot of things in common, they may have some key differences that you might want to know when you speak to your doctor. 

A medical professional can help you navigate these and other medications that might be able to help you, but being informed about your choices may allow you to find the best option for your needs. Learn more about how Xanax and Valium compare.

What Is Xanax?

Xanax is the brand name for a prescription drug called alprazolam. It’s used to treat panic disorders, which are characterized by panic attacks and subsequent anxiety. It’s also used to treat other anxiety disorders and depression that are associated with anxiety. Xanax is a popular drug in the United States and has been among the most popular drugs in the world since it was first introduced. 

Xanax is in a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which are used to treat extremely common issues in the United States like anxiety disorders and sleep problems. It’s also a member of the broad category of psychoactive substances known as central nervous system depressants. 

Xanax can help relax you physically and mentally, which makes it useful in treating anxiety-related problems. It may facilitate sleep, relaxation, anxiolysis (anti-anxiety), and relaxed muscles. Xanax is also sometimes misused as a recreational drug because of its ability to cause alcohol-like intoxicating effects like euphoria and disinhibition. However, counterfeit Xanax is often sold on the street that is indistinguishable from the real thing. Misusing Xanax can be dangerous, especially if you get the drug from illicit sources. 

What Is Valium?

Valium is the brand name for a drug called diazepam that’s used to treat several problems, including anxiety disorders, seizures, muscle spasms, sleep problems, and restless leg syndrome. Like Xanax, Valium is a central nervous system depressant that’s in a class of drugs called benzodiazepines. Diazepam was first patented in 1959, and it was first made available for medical use in 1963. Through the 1970s, it was the top-selling drug in the world.

Since then, it has remained among the most popular medications in the world. Today, Xanax has become more popular than Valium, selling more than any other benzodiazepine. As a depressant and a benzodiazepine, Valium and Xanax both work in very similar ways in the brain, though there may be some slight differences when taking the medication. 

Valium is a long-acting drug, which means its effects last longer than some of the other drugs in its class. Long-acting substances tend to have less potential for abuse than fast, short-acting drugs. Recreational drug users typically look for something that will cause a euphoric high quickly and wear off after a few hours. Still, Valium can cause intoxication effects like euphoric relaxation and inhibition release. But misuse can also cause side effects like slurred speech, loss of balance, impaired motor functions, and memory impairment. 

xanax-vs-valium

How Do They Work?

Xanax and Valium are benzodiazepines that work similarly in the brain. They primarily work with a chemical in the brain called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a neurotransmitter that’s integral to your rest-and-digest response. Normally, your brain would release GABA to bind to GABA receptors. GABA would then open channels on your nerve cell to let in a negative charge, which blocks nervous system activity. 

This slows down the nerve cell, which allows you to relax. People with panic and anxiety disorders may have an issue that causes this process to be less efficient. Benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium can help increase the efficacy of GABA. They bind to GABA receptors, too, only they use a different binding site than GABA. Once they’re there, they will increase the amount of time that GABA opens the channel to negative ions, creating more intense inhibitory effects.

Though the drugs work in similar ways in the brain, your experience with one may be different than the other. They cause some of the same effects, but the speed at which they start working, the length of time you feel its effects, and the effectiveness they have at treating specific problems can vary.

Valium is a fast-acting benzodiazepine that can begin working within 15 minutes. Xanax can begin working after a little more time, between 15 and 30 minutes. Valium reaches its peak effectiveness after one hour. Xanax can vary between 45 minutes and an hour and a half. Valium is also considered long-acting, with a half-life of 20 to 50 hours. Plus, it breaks down into active metabolites that last even longer. Xanax has a half-life of six to 20 hours with no long-lasting metabolites. 

It’s important to note that the length of time a drug stays active doesn’t mean it’s more effective. Different time lengths may be better for different purposes. For instance, if you’re taking the drug to deal with anxiety-related insomnia, you may not want it to last long into the next day. 

Which Is More Effective: Xanax or Valium?

Xanax and Valium are both effective medications when it comes to treating anxiety. Valium is an older drug that was once the most popular medication in the world. Though Xanax is newer, it’s now the most popular benzodiazepine medication. There have been several studies that compared the efficacy of the drugs used in the Valium and Xanax brands. In 1980, a double-blind study compared alprazolam, diazepam, and a placebo in treating anxiety in outpatient treatment. 

Both drugs were more effective than the placebo, but alprazolam (Xanax) was more effective than diazepam (Valium). They also noted that alprazolam had fewer instances of reported side effects. It’s worth noting that this study only involved 86 people. 

A similar study in 1986 was done to compare the effects of diazepam and alprazolam on patients with panic disorders. The study found that both drugs were equally effective in reducing the duration of panic attacks and the severity of generalized anxiety. A third study in 1979 looked at 144 patients with anxiety that were in outpatient treatment and found that both drugs were equally effective, but alprazolam had fewer side effects. 

Finally, a 2018 study on mice looked at the efficacy of diazepam and alprazolam as a muscle relaxant. Anxiety is the most common reason Valium or Xanax might be prescribed, but it can also be used to treat muscle spasms that are caused by injuries or neurological diseases. The study found that diazepam had greater muscle relaxant effects than alprazolam. 

Xanax and Valium are both similarly effective for their intended uses. Though studies may lean one way or the other, they don’t show an overwhelming difference when it comes to efficacy. When you work with your doctor to find the right medication for your needs, you may try one of these drugs and see how it affects you. If you don’t feel that you see an improvement in your symptoms, let your doctor know. 

They may adjust your dose or switch over to another medication. When treating anxiety or many other issues, there is no one treatment that’s guaranteed to work for everyone. Finding a treatment that works may require a period of trial and error where you work closely with your doctor. It’s important to note that there are many treatment options for common issues like anxiety. If one doesn’t work, it’s just a matter of trying the next option.  

Other Considerations When Taking Xanax or Valium

A major consideration when you’re seeking benzodiazepine medication is its misuse potential. Abuse potential, also called misuse liability, is the likelihood that a drug may be used incorrectly or recreationally. Misuse liability is often judged by the drug’s ability to cause a euphoric high, dependence, and addiction. 

Both of these drugs can be misused. Like benzodiazepines, they can cause intoxicating side effects that are similar to drinking alcohol. They can cause euphoric relaxation, a release of inhibition, loss of social anxiety, and a heightened mood. 

In the United States, they are both considered Schedule IV drugs, which means they have some but limited abuse potential. While both of these drugs are misused, along with several other benzodiazepine medications, Xanax is the most commonly found in an illicit context. 

Illicit drug use can include using a prescription drug without a prescription, getting prescription drugs from illegal sources, or using counterfeit versions of a drug. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, there were 47,546 reports of illicit alprazolam compared to only 4,451 reports of diazepam. 

If you do become dependent on one of these two drugs, diazepam may cause fewer or less severe withdrawal symptoms than alprazolam. Since diazepam lasts longer and has active metabolites, it may wear off more gradually than alprazolam, producing fewer uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. 

Either way, withdrawal from benzodiazepines can be potentially dangerous, causing severe symptoms like seizures. If you feel like you’ve become dependent on Valium or Xanax, speak to your doctor before quitting cold turkey. 

Sources

Ahmad, S. S. (2018, September). Comparative Study of Muscle Relaxant Activity of Alprazolam With Diazepam In Mice. from https://patents.google.com/patent/US3326757A/en

Dunner, D. L. (1986). Effect of alprazolam and diazepam on anxiety and panic attacks in panic disorder: A controlled study. from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1987-35372-001

DEA. (2019, December). Benzodiazepines. from https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/benzo.pdf

Fabre, L. F. (1979). A double-blind study comparing the efficacy and safety of alprazolam with diazepam and placebo in anxious out-patients. from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1980-26189-001

Maletzky, B. M. (1980). Anxiolytic efficacy of alprazolam compared to diazepam and placebo. from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6102940/

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