Sleeping pills, also called Z-drugs, can be used as a short-term treatment for insomnia and other sleep disorders. However, people who take the drugs for a long period of time or abuse them may develop addiction, face health risks, and increase chances of overdose.
Addiction to sleeping pills is dangerous due to the side effects produced by the drug, and the risk of overdose. People who become addicted to sleeping pills tend to form habits of falling asleep only while taking the drugs. If this happens, and they can no longer access the drug, they may try to find it through illicit means, or seek alternative methods, such as other illegal drugs.
Some people believe they cannot become addicted to sleeping pills. It’s easy to assume all prescription drugs are safe because they’re prescribed by a doctor. Yet these drugs can cause addiction, and with it increased side effects and damage to health.
You may not intend to become addicted to sleeping pills, but addiction can still occur. You may find it hard to quit the drugs on your own, which is why treatment is available to help you get off sleeping pills and learn to manage your life without substance use.
Sleeping Pills Defined
Sleeping pills are sedative-hypnotic drugs which work by attaching to certain receptors in the brain, relaxing the body, and inducing sleep. Other sedative-hypnotics include barbiturates and benzodiazepines.
Unlike benzos or barbiturates, however, the effects of sleeping pills tend to be more mild and result in less side effects. The drugs may not always cause physical dependence, like benzos and barbiturates.
Still, sleeping pills come with a potential for abuse, so many doctors only prescribe them for a short period of time. Usually, the drugs are prescribed to treat people who struggle with severe insomnia or other sleep disorders to help them get back on a routine sleeping schedule.
Common sleeping pills include eszopiclone (Lunesta), zaleplon (Sonata), and zolpidem (Ambien).
Abuse Of Sleeping Pills
Abuse of sleeping pills, like abuse of any drug, can cause addiction. Addiction occurs when your body becomes mentally addicted to something—it’s the reason we can become addicted to activities, like sex or gambling. You do not have to be physically dependent on a drug to be addicted to it, so it’s possible to be addicted to sleeping pills even if you aren’t dependent on them.
Sleeping pill abuse can occur in the following ways:
- Taking more of the drug than prescribed
- Taking it in a different way than prescribed (such as crushing the capsules and snorting the powder for faster effects)
- Taking a medication that doesn’t belong to you
- Obtaining the medication through illicit means.
The following signs may point to sleeping pill abuse:
- “Doctor shopping,” or trying to get the drug from different doctors
- Experiencing cravings
- Experiencing memory loss
- Taking the drugs despite addiction or health risks
- Taking more of the drug to fall asleep
- Trying to quit taking the drugs and failing
People may fall easily into abuse when they increase their dosage of sleeping pills to try to induce sleep. This is especially true if the drug is no longer working due to tolerance. If you build up a tolerance to a drug, you no longer feel its effects. Increasing dosage without consulting a doctor is dangerous, both due to increased risk of overdose and risk of developing addiction.
Side Effects Of Sleeping Pills
People who have been prescribed sleeping pills may begin abusing the drugs whenever they can’t fall asleep. Other people may seek Z-drugs as a way to cope with stressors in life, since the drugs are effective at inducing sleep.
When sleeping pills are abused in higher doses than what is prescribed, they can cause extreme drowsiness and euphoria. People who abuse the drug recreationally may experience adverse effects if they take the drug but try not to fall asleep, including hallucinations.
Other side effects of sleeping pill abuse may include appearing and feeling intoxicated, dizziness, dreamless sleep, reduced anxiety, lack of coordination, and lightheadedness.
Health Risks From Sleeping Pill Abuse
Abuse of sleeping pills comes with a number of health risks, depending on duration of abuse, frequency of abuse, and dosage. Labels for the drugs come with warnings for potential dangerous activities while on the drugs, including sleep-driving and sleep-eating, so abuse increases risk of these effects.
“Z-drugs have the potential to cause residual effects post-awakening that relate to cognition, memory, parasomnia, and bizarre behavior,” according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The drugs can affect your body balance, reaction times, and ability to multitask, both at the time you take the drug and the day after.
A condition known as the rebound effect is common with abuse of sleeping pills. The rebound effect occurs when people who stop taking Z-drugs experience the same symptoms the medications were originally targeting. Rebound insomnia may be so severe that people withdrawing from sleeping pills may fall easily back into abuse.
Addiction, tolerance, and dependence are some of the largest risks associated with sleeping pill abuse because each increases risk of overdose, risk of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, and risk of a long-term substance use problem.
People who abuse Z-drugs often combine them with other substances, such as alcohol, to enhance the effects of the drugs. Abuse of sleeping pills is most dangerous when combined with abuse of other substances. In fact, risk of overdose is highest when combining sleeping pills with other drugs.
The effects of sleeping pills may seem mild to a person who has developed tolerance to them, or to someone who struggles with a substance use disorder. For this reason, the drugs are often combined with antidepressants, benzodiazepines, or painkillers (such as opioid prescription drugs). While these more potent drugs may enhance the effects of Z-drugs at first, the result—whether from one instance or over time with repeated use—can be fatal.
Sleeping Pill Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal from sleeping pills mimics that of benzodiazepines, though may not be as severe. People who have become physically dependent on the drugs will likely experience withdrawal symptoms, especially rebound insomnia, when not taking the drugs.
Symptoms may occur as early as a few hours after the last dose, and may last for up to a month, depending on duration of abuse, frequency of abuse, and dosage.
Sleeping pill withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Heart palpitations
- Severe insomnia
In extreme cases, some individuals may experience seizures or psychosis.
Abuse Of Sleeping Pills In The U.S.
Abuse of sleeping pills is not restricted to any one group of people. Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that four percent of U.S. adults age 20 and over used prescription sleep aids in the past month.
Use of sleeping pills increases with both age and education levels, and women are more likely than men to seek prescriptions to help induce sleep. Use of sleep aids is highest among adults who get less than five hours of sleep per night.
The CDC reports that 50 to 70 million Americans are estimated to suffer from sleep disorders, experiencing hindrances to daily functions as a result. Sleep aids may entice many of these people with the promise of increased sleep. Yet sleeping pills can lead to adverse health effects, addiction, dependence, and possibly overdose.
Treatment For Sleeping Pill Abuse
People struggling with addiction or dependence may need help overcoming use of the drugs safely. This may include a tapering method, or gradually decreasing dosage until you can quit use of the drugs. Tapering is a method often used for people who have become dependent because it allows the body to adjust to decreased levels of the drug.
Treatment for prescription drug addiction may involve a number of methods, based on an individual’s needs in treatment. For example, if you have a co-occurring mental health disorder, your treatment needs may incorporate methods to help you manage substance use and mental health together.
Behavioral therapy is an effective method for many types of addiction because it allows you to think about life differently than before, seeking fulfillment in new ways and changing your thought processes. Skill-building and increasing confidence levels and self-awareness are important components of any treatment program.
Finding an inpatient drug rehab center which assesses your treatment needs, and designs a treatment plan to address each of those needs will give you the greatest chance at recovery success.
Get Help For An Addiction To Sleeping Pills Today
If you are struggling with addiction to sleeping pills, we can help you find a treatment center that customizes treatment to your individual needs. Learn more, contact one of our treatment specialists at InpatientDrugRehab.org.
Psychology Today—How to Get Off Sleeping Pills