Are Sleeping Pills Addictive?

man addicted to taking sleeping pills

You're not alone if you have trouble sleeping. Sleep disorders affect up to 70% of American adults, making it a prevalent health issue. Millions of people struggle with disrupted sleep, often caused by stress, anxiety, depression, or pain. Of those Americans who have insomnia, 4% use prescription medications to help them sleep.  We know that sleeping pills can help, but these medications can also be addictive. Do the risks of taking sleeping pills outweigh the reward of getting a good night's rest? We’ll explore this topic in the article below.

Causes and Side-Effects of Insomnia

People with insomnia have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Insomnia can be caused by:

  • Caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol consumption
  • Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders
  • Overeating before bed
  • Frequent urinating in the middle of the night
  • Hyposomnia (daytime sleepiness)
  • Narcolepsy
  • Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder
  • Parasomnias (disruption of REM sleep)
  • Periodic Limb Movement Disorder
  • Poor general health
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Shift work sleep disorder
  • Sleep apnea
  • Stimulating medications
  • Stress or mental health disorder
  • Untreated pain or medical disorders

Women over the age of sixty are most at risk for developing a sleep disorder, especially if they live with high levels of stress. People can be diagnosed with both short-term (acute) and long-term insomnia. Over time, a lack of sleep causes a host of issues in the human body, including:

  • An increased risk of developing cancer
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure
  • Increased risk of irritability, anxiety, and depression
  • Increased chances of accidental falls
  • Making simple errors or omissions
  • Memory issues
  • Poor job performance

How Sleeping Pills Work

Sleeping pills are one of the most commonly used treatments for insomnia and sleep disorders. While they may be the best option in the short term, they are not safe to take indefinitely. Sleeping pills are available over-the-counter or by prescription and come in various forms and names. Sleeping aids include herbs, prescription drugs, and over-the-counter medication. Depending on the drug, they may be referred to as tranquilizers, hypnotic sedatives, or anxiolytics. The University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation studied people who reported having difficulty sleeping. Of the study participants, "23 percent use a prescription sleep aid....those who use such drugs to help them sleep had been taking them for years."

People have been using sleep aids for centuries. Opium, derived from the poppy plant, was one of the earliest substances used to help people rest. In the 19th century, chloral hydrate was popular, and in the early part of the 20th century, people began to use barbiturates as sedatives. By the 1970s, benzodiazepines were the most commonly prescribed sleeping pills. Today, there are several approved prescription medications, including lorazepam (Ativan) Eszopiclone (Lunesta), Ramelteon (Rozerem), Zaleplon (Sonata) and Zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo, Zolpimist). The most popular of these drugs is Zolpidem, prescribed to over three million people in 2019. Over-the-counter treatments can include Melatonin, Diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Aleve PM), doxylamine succinate (Unisom SleepTabs), and Valerian root.

Sleeping pills are classified as depressants because they slow down bodily functions. Some drugs activate neurotransmitters in the brain, causing you to feel relaxed and fall asleep. Other sleep aids function by binding to GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors and sending calming signals to the brain. Taking a sleeping pill relaxes the muscles around your eyes, mouth, and throat. It slows down your heart rate and relaxes your breathing. This helps to calm both the body and the mind simultaneously. Sleeping aids can also lower high levels of anxiety. When taken as prescribed by your doctor, sleeping pills can be a safe and easy way to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

Are There Any Side Effects or Risks?

It will come as no surprise that a common side effect of taking sleeping pills is drowsiness. Because of this, you should avoid driving or swimming after taking them. Different sleeping pills have different side effects. Some of them can include:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Anxiety
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth/throat
  • Feeling off-balance
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Sexual Disfunction
  • Trouble walking
  • Vomiting

Many people experience few side effects from sleeping pills, but for some, the reaction can be severe or even deadly.  In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration issued a report warning about the risk associated with certain prescription insomnia drugs, following "several reports of rare but serious injuries and deaths resulting from various complex sleep behaviors after taking these medicines…(including) sleepwalking, sleep-driving and engaging in other activities while not fully awake, such as unsafely using a stove."

Are Sleeping Pills Addictive?

While most people don't experience adverse side effects from sleep medication, they have the potential for dependency and addiction. Most doctors don't recommend taking sleeping pills for an extended period of time. It is possible to develop a tolerance, requiring more and more of the drug to be effective.

People don't develop cravings for sleep medications the way they do for opioids or heroin. Still, people who take sleeping pills can become psychologically dependent, meaning they have to take a sleeping aid or will be unable to sleep. Certain medications carry a higher risk of dependence. Benzodiazepines like Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam) and Restoril (temazepam) carry greater risk than barbiturates (such as Phenobarbital) and Ambien (zolpidem). Experts disagree about whether dependence is possible with Ambien if it is used according to directions and only for a limited time.

The most significant danger of dependence on a sleeping aid is that it can be a catalyst for becoming addicted to other substances like prescription drugs, illegal drugs, or alcohol. If you continue to abuse sleeping pills, you can develop serious health problems. Sleeping pills are especially dangerous when taken in combination with other drugs. This can be fatal because both substances depress bodily functions.

If you are concerned that you or a loved one may be addicted to sleeping pills, it is time to seek professional help to regain your health. It would be best to gradually reduce your dosage under the supervision of a doctor or other medical professional. If you abruptly stop taking sleeping pills, you may experience rebound effects such as sweating, anxiety, and, ironically, sleeplessness. Prolonged use of sleeping pills can harm your sleep patterns in the long run.

Alternatives to Sleeping Pills

If you have a history of addiction or a family history of alcoholism, you may be at risk for developing a dependence or addiction to sleeping pills. You may want to avoid sleeping pills, and seek alternative forms of care, including:

  • Avoiding heavy meals before bedtime
  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)
  • Limiting caffeine and alcohol
  • Minimizing screen time at night
  • Non-prescription supplements like melatonin
  • Stress reduction techniques like yoga and mediation
  • Striving for a consistent sleep schedule

In the end, it is up to each individual to determine how they want to deal with their sleep issues. Remember that over-the-counter supplements like melatonin and Benadryl also come with side effects. If you can't get a good night's sleep, you must consult with a healthcare professional as soon as possible to discuss your options.

Sleeping pills are potent medications and have the potential to be habit-forming. Abused alone or with other medicines, sleeping pills can cause dangerous side effects and possibly even death. That doesn't mean you have to suffer, however. There are alternatives to prescription medications if you want to sleep better. Our professional staff at Lake Avenue Recovery can help you or your loved one get back to a healthy night's rest without potentially addictive drugs. If you have any questions about overcoming sleeping pill addiction and starting recovery, call us today at 855-923-2354.

We’re not medical professionals. If you have concerns about your sleep health, talk to your doctor.

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