- What are Sleeping Pills?
- Are Sleeping Pills Addictive?
- Statistical Overview of Sleeping Pill Abuse
- Co-Occurring Reasons for Sleeping Pill Abuse
- Physical Effects of Sleeping Pills
- The Dangers of Sleeping Pills
- Signs & Symptoms of Sleeping Pill Addiction
- Sleeping Pill Withdrawal Symptoms
- Sleeping Pill Withdrawal Symptoms
- Withdrawal Timeline
- Treatment for Sleeping Pill Addiction
- Key Sources
- Medical Disclaimer
Nobody likes a sleepless night. There’s nothing worse than being wide-eyed and awake, hour after hour until the sun rises. While the odd night of insomnia can be tolerable, frequent sleeplessness is not. Chronic lack of sleep not only damages one’s mental health, but it also poses long-term physical health issues.
In the U.S., it is estimated that 30% to 40% of adults report symptoms of insomnia at some point in the year. The National Health Interview Survey data also shows that rates of insomnia have increased by roughly 8% over the last decade. With so many people suffering from lack of sleep, it’s no surprise that many of them turn to sleeping pills as a solution. However, the problem with sleeping pills is that, not only are they highly addictive, but they can also be difficult to withdraw from.
The good news is that while sleeping pill addiction and abuse can be difficult to stop, help is available. Before going into the treatment methods that are available, this article will provide an outline of what sleeping pills are, as well as what effects they have on the body.
What are Sleeping Pills?
Sleepless nights can be one of the most disruptive things when it comes to our health. The discomfort of tossing and turning at all hours of the night can prompt someone to reach for sleeping aids in the quest for a few hours of shut-eye.
But what do sleeping pills do? In short, these medications are designed to promote relaxation by targeting the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors of our brain. GABA functions as a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep, calmness, reduced anxiety, and a slowing of brain activity.
Types of Sleeping Pills
Sleeping pills vary by ingredients and what function they perform in the brain. Most sleeping pills are classed as “sedative hypnotics” and they include benzodiazepines (“benzos”), barbiturates, and other hypnotics. Below are some of the most common types:
Well-known benzos include Xanax, Valium, and Ativan. These are powerful anti-anxiety medications that also induce drowsiness and help people fall asleep.
Barbiturates depress the nervous system and cause sedation. They can be prescribed in short- or long-acting form; however, they are primarily used for anesthesia, since high doses can be fatal. Examples include Seconal, Butisol, and Donnatal.
Newer forms of sleeping pills are designed to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep while still binding to the same GABA receptors as benzos. These include drugs like Lunesta, Sonata, and Ambien and are said to be less habit forming. They are also the most prescribed sleeping pills in the U.S.
While anti-depressants are largely for treating mood issues, some anti-depressants such as Desyrel are highly effective at treating insomnia and anxiety.
Most over-the-counter sleep aids consist of antihistamines. These can take the form of cold or allergy medicines, such as Benadryl and Aleve PM, but they are known to cause excessive drowsiness.
Other Names for Sleeping Pills
Other names for sleeping pills (particularly Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata) include:
- Zombie Pills
- Forget-Me Pill
- Mexican Valium
- Sleep Aids
- Sleep Medicine
Are Sleeping Pills Addictive?
While sleeping pills can be useful on occasion, they pose a high risk of abuse. Not only are these medications addictive, but dependency can quickly develop if a person doesn’t address the underlying causes of their sleep issues. Many people are also not aware of the addictive qualities of sleeping pills, and can end up abusing them unwittingly. Also, sleeping pills are addictive not only because of their relaxing qualities, but because they can induce feelings of pleasure and euphoria.
Another issue with sleeping pill addiction is that the body easily develops a tolerance. This means the person needs to take higher and higher doses to achieve the desired effect, which can result in cravings if the pills are discontinued. This cycle of tolerance and cravings can create an addiction loop that is difficult to break without intervention.
Statistical Overview of Sleeping Pill Abuse
Below are some statistics surrounding sleeping pill abuse in the U.S.:
- It is estimated that around 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleeping disorders.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 4% of U.S. adults aged 20 and over have used prescription sleep aids in the past month.
- In the same study, women are said to use sleeping aids more than men.
- In 2011, 30,149 emergency room visits were due to Ambien abuse.
- In 2013, nearly 9 million Americans regularly used sleeping pills.
- In 2012, 21% of people abusing sleeping pills had thoughts of suicide related to their drug use.
- On average, sleeping pills add only 11 minutes of sleep time and will cause a person to fall asleep 13 minutes sooner than without.
Co-Occurring Reasons for Sleeping Pill Abuse
There are many reasons that people abuse sleeping pills. Below are some of the common co-occurring conditions that can lead to abuse.
Anxiety is a mental health condition characterized by excessive worry and fear. As a result, many people with anxiety struggle with sleep issues and will turn to medications to help them relax and sleep through the night. Also, people with anxiety disorders are often prescribed anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, and they can become reliant on these not only for relaxation, but also for improved sleep.
Major depressive disorder is often accompanied by sleep disturbances, such as insomnia and hypersomnia. Consequently, many people who suffer from depression also struggle with sleeping pill abuse, as they become dependent on them to not only sleep, but also to cope with feelings of sadness and low mood.
Sleep Disorders (Insomnia)
Unsurprisingly, sleep disorders are the number one cause of sleeping pill abuse. While not all sleep conditions require sleeping pills as a treatment, issues such as insomnia are prime candidates for these kinds of medications. People with chronic insomnia often have other underlying health conditions, but they are known to abuse sleeping pills because of the relief that they provide.
People who regularly abuse other substances (whether illicit or prescription) are also known to abuse sleeping pills. For example, individuals who abuse stimulants sometimes use sleeping pills to help them relax and fall asleep.
Physical Effects of Sleeping Pills
- Reduced anxiety
- Dreamless sleep
- Lack of coordination
There are also potential side effects with sleeping pills, such as:
- Burning or tingling in the hands, arms, feet, or legs
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty keeping balance
- Daytime drowsiness
- Dry mouth or throat
- Mental slowness or problems with attention or memory
- Stomach pain or tenderness
- Uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body
- Unusual dreams
The Dangers of Sleeping Pills
While sleeping pills may seem harmless, there are risks involved. Not only can sleeping pill abuse lead to over-sedation, but long-term use can pose health risks. The main issue with sleeping pills is the perceived safety of these medications. Since many people aren’t aware of their dangers and addictive potential, they can take higher doses than prescribed, or use them for longer than intended.
Some of the physical dangers associated with sleeping pills are excessive fatigue, seizures, depressed breathing, and coma. Others may experience allergic reactions that can cause chest pain, difficulty breathing, nausea, and swelling.
In rarer cases, sleeping pills can cause parasomnias — sleep disorders that consist of sleep-walking, sleep-eating, sleep-sex, sleep-driving, etc.
Signs & Symptoms of Sleeping Pill Addiction
Like other drugs, there are physical and behavioral signs that indicate someone is abusing sleeping pills or has formed an addiction.
Individuals who regularly take sleeping pills for long periods can exhibit physical signs, such as:
- Slurred speech
- Uncoordinated movements
- Unsteady gait
- Inability to focus
- Impaired memory
- Unusual euphoria
Any sudden changes in behavior can be clear indicators of a problem. Some of the behavioral signs of sleeping pill addiction also apply to other drug dependencies. These include:
- Hiding sleeping pill consumption
- Needing more sleeping pills to fall asleep
- Trying and failing to quit sleeping pills more than once
- Seeming confused or frequently detached
- Isolating oneself from friends, family, education, and work
- Frequent mood swings
- “Doctor shopping” to acquire multiple prescriptions
- Craving sleeping pills
- Taking sleeping pills when they’re not needed
- Feeling guilt about taking sleeping pills
- Going out of the way to take sleeping pills
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit sleeping pills
Sleeping Pill Withdrawal Symptoms
People who are abusing sleeping pills will usually experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking them. These vary in severity, and can include:
- Increased heart rate
- Body spasms
- Hand tremors
- Stomach cramps
- Irritability or anxiety
- Feeling down or depressed
One of the most uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms is “rebound insomnia,” which can last for a few days or a few weeks. This condition occurs because the body has become accustomed to sleeping pills to fall asleep. When a person stops taking them, the body rebounds and it often results in worse insomnia symptoms than before.
The length of rebound insomnia is dependent on the half-life of the medication and how soon it leaves the body. For example, drugs like Rozerem have a half-life of 1 to 2.6 hours. The rebound effects will thus be more intense and begin more immediately, but they will subside faster.
The other issue with rebound insomnia is that it can cause a person to relapse and go back to taking sleeping pills. Because the insomnia is so much worse than before, it can cause them to start taking the medication again.
Sleeping Pill Withdrawal Symptoms
Aside from rebound insomnia, other withdrawal effects of sleeping pills include:
- Body spasms
- Drug cravings
- Increased heart rate
- Hand tremors
Individuals who abuse sleeping pills may have taken these in excess or for longer than intended. While each person varies, a typical withdrawal timeline can look like the following:
First Phase (Days 1-3)
Withdrawal from sleeping pills usually takes place within the first 24 to 72 hours after the last dose. Symptoms include confusion, mood changes, memory loss, and anxiety.
Second Phase (Days 4-10)
For about a week, individuals will primarily experience insomnia and difficulty sleeping. Anxiety is also typically present, along with symptoms like sweating, increased heart rate, rebound insomnia, and tremors.
Third Phase (Weeks 11-17)
During this phase, the physical symptoms of withdrawal begin to fade. Psychological symptoms like anxiety and panic attacks may be present, as well as depression and insomnia.
Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)
If withdrawal symptoms last longer than a month, this is referred to as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). The PAWS period differs depending on the drug, but for sleeping pills, depression and drug cravings may persist and last for up to 18 months.
Treatment for Sleeping Pill Addiction
While sleeping pill addiction can be challenging to beat, it is possible. Below are some of the ways you can reach out for help by speaking to your doctor or seeking treatment at a rehab facility.
Stop On Your Own
Like other drugs, many health professionals advise against quitting cold turkey on your own. While it’s possible to do so, it’s important to bear in mind that doing it this way can worsen withdrawal symptoms and lead to a relapse.
Speak to Your Doctor
If you are aware of your addiction to sleeping pills and require help to stop, speak to your doctor. They may be able to prescribe alternative medications and address any other underlying issues you might have. If you feel there are also mental health issues at play, ask your doctor to recommend a therapist or seek out one yourself.
Detox centers are an excellent way to wean off sleeping pills while receiving medical support. These clinics are usually staffed with a team of doctors and nurses who have experience with addiction and drug withdrawal. The advantage of going to a detox center is that medical assistance is readily available. A detox center will place you in comfortable surroundings where you can be assured of help in case of emergencies. These clinics also provide medications to ease some of the symptoms.
Inpatient or residential centers are ideal for individuals who need intensive support for their addiction. These programs typically start with medical detox and are followed by a program of addiction treatment, such as therapy or counseling, lasting from 30 days to 12 months. These programs also range from basic to luxury options, all varying in terms of their amenities and types of therapy. These facilities also provide 24-hour medical support and are often led by a team of counselors, clinicians, and doctors.
Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP)
For individuals who require intensive addiction treatment but still prefer to live at home, partial hospitalization (PHP) or day treatment programs are also available. PHP typically consists of hospital treatment 5 to 7 days a week for 4 to 8 hours per day. Like inpatient treatment, clinical staff are on hand to assist with detox, medication management, and withdrawal symptoms. PHP also involves counseling and group therapy, as well as specialized services that focus on skill-building, relapse prevention, and employment assistance.
Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP)
Intensive outpatient programs are less involved than partial hospitalization programs and typically take place at a treatment center or outpatient clinic. Clients receiving intensive outpatient treatment will usually visit the center 2 to 5 days per week for 2 to 4 hours per day. IOP is well suited to clients who have just completed inpatient rehab or for those who wish to receive intense treatment while living off site. Programs often involve a mixture of individual and group therapy, case management, 12-Step programs, experiential therapies, cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT), and services that cover topics like skill-building, goal setting, and relapse prevention.
Standard Outpatient Programs
Standard outpatient programs are suited to individuals who have just completed an inpatient program and want to continue some form of therapy. Standard outpatient is also ideal for people who may be juggling other responsibilities such as work or school. Individuals typically report to a treatment center or clinic 1 or 2 days per week. These programs can include counseling, group therapy, 12-Step groups, skills development, goal setting, and relapse prevention training.
If you or a loved one are struggling with a sleeping pill addiction, you are not alone. Treatment and support are readily available. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment.
You can also find a list of treatment centers near you on our website to help get you on the path to recovery.
Atif. (2021). Understanding Sleep Disorders. Dual diagnosis.org. https://dualdiagnosis.org/sleeping-disorders.
Casarella, J. (2020). Understanding the Side Effects of Sleeping Pills. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/understanding-the-side-effects-of-sleeping-pills.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Prescription Sleep Aid Use Among Adults: United States, 2005–2010. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db127.htm.
Gardner, A. (2018). 5 Signs You’re Addicted to Sleeping Pills–and How to Fall Asleep Without Them. Health.com. https://www.health.com/condition/sleep/sleeping-pill-addiction.
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