More than one-third of American adults regularly do not get enough sleep, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although there are several healthy ways to improve sleeping habits, many people find it easier to take a pill before bed. Before they know it, they develop a sleeping pill addiction on top of these other stressors.
Although it might seem relatively harmless compared to other types of addictions at first glance, sleeping pill addiction can cause significant long-term brain damage and may even be fatal.
Signs Of Sleeping Pill Addiction
Nearly nine million Americans take prescription sleeping pills to go to sleep, mostly consisting of popular brands like Ambien (zolpidem) and Lunesta (eszopiclone). These are non-benzodiazepines, also called “z-drugs.”
Most people quickly develop a tolerance that requires them to take higher doses of these drugs for them to remain effective. This can lead to physical dependence—a physical craving for sleep medication—as well as addiction caused by changes in the brain with prolonged use.
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Some people obtain sleeping pills illicitly and increase their dosage without a doctor’s recommendation Those who struggle with sleeping pill addiction are not alone in their struggle, and it’s crucial to be able to recognize when this behavior becomes problematic.
The following signs are indicators that sleeping pill use might have developed into an addiction:
- slurred speech
- impaired memory
- inability to focus
- lack of coordination or dizziness
- inability to sleep without sleeping pills
- several failed attempts at quitting
- cravings for sleep medication
- seeing more than one doctor for prescriptions
- relationship problems or financial trouble related to drug use
Essentially, if any of the consequences of taking sleeping pills have a significant negative impact on the person’s life, this is a sign that the dependence on sleeping pills may be out of control.
How Are Sleeping Pills Abused?
Sleeping pills are generally taken in pill form, though some people may crush them up and snort them for a faster effect.
A new trend among teenage and college-aged young adults is to combine sleeping pills with alcohol to maximize the sedative properties. This can be especially dangerous since excessive intake of these two drugs together can slow the central nervous system and cause breathing disturbances that could be fatal.
Although over-the-counter sleeping pills might seem less harmful since they are unregulated, people who take these drugs can just as easily develop an addiction to them.
Those taking over-the-counter sleeping medications like diphenhydramine (Nytol, Benadryl) and doxylamine (Unisom) often exhibit the same symptoms of addiction as those who are taking prescription sleep medication.
Some people who abuse sleeping pills may develop parasomnia, a sleep disorder that includes behaviors like sleepwalking, sleep-eating, sleep-driving, sleep-sex and other activities done while sleeping that can lead to deadly consequences.
Dangers Of Sleeping Pill Addiction
Dan Kaufer, MD, neurologist, and director of the UNC Memory Disorders program, notes that there are three classes of medications that can have severe cognitive side effects. These include benzodiazepines, opioids, and antihistamines.
Benzodiazepines like Restoril (temazepam) are often prescribed as sleep aids. These drugs can significantly impair memory and are not generally effective for long-term use as the body quickly builds a tolerance to them.
Over-the-counter antihistamines like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) may also be used for insomnia. These seemingly harmless drugs can cause confusion in older adults because they block acetylcholine, a brain chemical that affects short-term memory and attention.
Prolonged use of diphenhydramine can increase a person’s risk of dementia.
Sleeping Pill Overdose
A sleeping pill overdose can be deadly and is actually a common method of suicide. It can occur when a person takes a very high dose, especially if they use the drug frequently and it builds up in their system.
An overdose is also more likely when someone mixes sleeping pills with other depressants like opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol.
The following signs might indicate that a person with a sleeping pill addiction may have overdosed and needs immediate medical attention:
- extreme drowsiness
- difficulty speaking and recalling information
- depressed or abnormal breathing
An overdose on sleeping pills essentially shuts down the entire body, including the respiratory, nervous, and cardiovascular systems. If an overdose is not treated quickly, the person who overdosed may fall into a coma.
Slowed or stopped breathing can cause hypoxia—a lack of oxygen to the brain and body that can cause permanent brain and muscle damage. This may be indicated by bluish lips and fingernails.
Long term side effects of a sleeping pill overdose include the following:
- paranoid delusions
- memory loss
- face paralysis
- limited or no control over bodily functions
- development of psychological disorders
Sleeping Pill Withdrawal
According to Dr. Robert Epstein, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, many people who opt to stop taking sleeping pills will have a withdrawal response that prevents getting good sleep without them. This occurs when the body becomes physically dependent.
“If you stop too quickly you can get rebound insomnia, which makes symptoms worse,” explains Dr. Epstein. Stopping sleeping pill use abruptly can cause seizures in some people, so it is recommended that a person tapers off of these drugs under the supervision of a physician.
Those who are attempting to reduce their sleep medication use gradually should prepare for their sleep to be disrupted each time the dose is lowered because of the withdrawal effect.
The longer the individual has been taking medications, the slower the weaning process will be, which means it could last weeks and even months.
However, tapering usually reduces the severity of withdrawal symptoms and is the only way some people are able to overcome their physical dependence on sleeping pills.
Treatment For Sleeping Pill Addiction
At The Bluffs, we understand that anyone can unintentionally develop an addiction to a substance, despite efforts to use it responsibly. Our inpatient rehab program will not only help individuals overcome the addiction itself, but also the underlying causes of substance abuse.
By encouraging significant lifestyle changes, such as participation in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and a regular exercise routine, we help people find healthy coping strategies and solutions to problems they would attempt to solve with substances.
With long-term care and continued support, anyone can find the strength they need to overcome sleeping pill abuse and enjoy a meaningful, substance-free life.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep
- Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School — The savvy sleeper: Wean yourself off sleep aids
- NBC News — Sleepless in the states: Nearly 9 million pop pills for shut-eye
- UNC Health Talks — How Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids Can Hurt Your Brain