According to recent estimates, between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation or sleep disorders. Because sleep deprivation can greatly reduce your ability to perform everyday tasks, it’s natural that anyone having issues with sleep would turn to their doctor for sleeping pills.
Natana Raj, a BCC Research Analyst in Wellesley, Massachusetts found that in 2015, Americans spent approximately $41 billion on sleep aids and sleeping pills, and that cost is expected to increase to $52 billion by the year 2020. That money would be worth every penny if these remedies did what they claim, but unfortunately, some don’t work, and many of those that do work can lead to physical and psychological addiction.
How many Americans rely on sleeping pills?
The first government study on prescription sleeping pills—not just the prescriptions that are filled, but those that patients actually take—found that almost 9 million American adults use sleeping pills. The number of adults taking these medications increases with education and age, and both Caucasians and females show higher rates of use. That means that while all kinds of Americans use sleeping pills, the majority are well-educated white women over the age of 50.
Most doctors readily prescribe these medications to their patients due to the proven health complications and functional impairment that is caused by sleep deprivation. When used as directed on a short-term basis, sleeping pills can be safe and helpful. However, some individuals become addicted to sleeping pills, both psychologically and physically. This puts them at risk of dangerous side effects, as well as suffering the long-term effects of sleeping pills.
Signs and Symptoms of Being Addicted to Sleeping Pills
No one sets out intending to become addicted to sleeping pills. Although some people abuse these medications to experience an intoxication similar to the effects of alcohol, most individuals become addicted to a legal prescription because they are convinced that they cannot go to sleep normally. This psychological addiction eventually leads to physical addiction as tolerance to the effects of the medication requires the user to take more and more, just to get to sleep.
Claiming or believing that you can’t go to sleep without a pill is one of the first signs of being addicted to sleeping pills. Other signs include:
- Increased tolerance to the drug’s effects
- A preoccupation with maintaining a supply of pills
- Doctor shopping or seeing multiple doctors to get prescriptions
- Apathy towards former interests
- Neglect of responsibilities at home, school or work
- Decline in grooming or hygiene
- Hostility or defensiveness towards loved ones showing concern about drug use
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating, and memory loss
- Problems with coordination and/or speech
- Continuing to use sleeping pills despite negative consequences of that use
A definite sign of being addicted to sleeping pills is experiencing withdrawal while trying to quit or reduce your dosage of pills. Withdrawal symptoms can vary, but usually include:
- Anxiety, irritability and depression
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased heart rate
- Hand tremors
- Body spasms
- Drug cravings
To avoid or minimize these symptoms, it is important to slowly wean yourself off of sleeping pills under medical guidance.
How dangerous are sleeping pills?
Even without an addiction, sleeping pills—both prescription and over the counter—can cause a range of unpleasant side effects, such as confusion, dry mouth, constipation and difficulty urinating. A particularly dangerous side effect is daytime drowsiness, which can cause even more impaired functioning than a sleepless night. Studies have shown that people taking prescription sleeping pills were twice as likely to get into car crashes—about the same increased risk as driving drunk. One way to avoid this effect is to make sure to never take a sleep aid without staying in bed for at least seven to eight hours afterwards.
Another side effect of sleeping pills is impaired coordination and balance. Many people suffer dizziness and falls as a side effect of sleeping pills, especially older adults, who are at greater risk of fractures and other injuries if they fall.
Sleeping pill addiction amplifies all these side effects and more. In addition to potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms such as delirium and seizures, people addicted to sleeping pills often experience depression and suicidal thoughts and intent. Long term effects of sleeping pills include blurred vision, respiratory difficulty, and damage to body organs. In addition, individuals addicted to sleeping pills may resort to risky behavior such as breaking the law after a doctor refuses to keep writing prescriptions.
Another danger of sleeping pill addiction is that it makes you more likely to combine pills with alcohol, which is incredibly dangerous. Alcohol amplifies the sedative effects of sleeping pills, making you feel confused, dizzy or faint. Fatal medical complications related to breathing and heart function can also result from mixing sleeping pills and alcohol.
Types of Sleeping Pills
Ambien, the brand name for zolpidem, is one of the most commonly abused sleeping pills. It is a sedative-hypnotic drug prescribed for insomnia and other sleep issues that is also highly addictive. The drug’s side effects include:
- A feeling of being drugged
- Joint, back, or neck pain
- Light-headedness, Dizziness
- Appetite changes
- Difficulty with balance and coordination
- Stomach tenderness and pain
- Pain, burning, numbness, or tingling in the hands, arms, feet, or legs
- Uncontrollable shaking
- Unusual dreams
- Dry throat and mouth
- Muscle aches or cramps
- Ringing, pain, or itching in the ears
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
Dangerous side effects can occur, and are more likely after long term use, or for those suffering an Ambien addiction. These effects include:
- Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Blurred vision
- Aggressive behavior
- Suicidal thoughts and actions
- Sleep walking, eating, and driving
- Memory loss
Amytal is a brand name formulation of amobarbital, a barbiturate prescribed for epilepsy and anxiety, as well as for insomnia. Barbiturates are central nervous system depressants with effects that can go beyond sedation all the way to coma and death.
When someone takes Amytal, and fights the sedating effects by resisting sleep, the drug can produce euphoria. For this reason, it is a popular drug of abuse. However, even individuals who take Amytal for insomnia can develop tolerance, dependence, and addiction. The rapidity at which tolerance can develop puts users at risk of overdose, and when trying to quit Amytal without medical help, an addict is likely to experience a withdrawal syndrome similar to delirium tremens, which can cause severe confusion, hallucinations, and potentially fatal seizures. Amytal withdrawal can also cause hyperthermia and psychosis.
Signs of Amytal abuse resemble alcohol intoxication. Other signs include:
- Reduced inhibition
- Central nervous system slowing, which can lead to breathing difficulty, coma and death
The greatest risk that comes with an addiction to barbiturates such as Amytal is that your tolerance to the mood-altering effects of the drug will develop much more rapidly than your tolerance to the lethal effects of the drug, so that you can overdose from even a small increase in dosage.
Lunesta is the brand name for the sleep medication eszopiclone. Although prescribed for insomnia, many addicts abuse it for the euphoria that results if you stay awake by fighting the sedating effects of the drug. Lunesta abuse can cause a variety of symptoms, including:
- Low blood pressure
- Problems with coordination
- Problems with memory
- Difficulty concentrating
- Slurred speech
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unpleasantly vivid dreams
- Male breast enlargement
- Slowed breathing
- Brain damage
Sonata is the brand name for the sleep aid zaleplon. Like Ambien and Lunesta, Sonata is one of the most frequently abused sleeping pills due to the euphoria that results when you fight against the sedating effects.
Sonata is a hypnotic and a CNS depressant with a high risk of addiction and fatal overdose. Side effects of Sonata use include:
- Vision problems
- Distorted sense of smell
- Noise sensitivity
- Eye pain
- Loss of appetite
- Numbness, burning and tingling in the feet and hands
- Problems with coordination
- Painful menstrual periods
Just like with Ambien and other prescription sleeping pills, individuals using Sonata, even as directed, may get out of bed without ever fully waking up and do things they don’t remember. People cook and eat, have phone conversations, drive cars and have sex, all without knowing what they’re doing, and without remembering it the next day.
Sonata can also cause dangerous seizures along with other unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, nausea and vomiting.
Treatment for Addiction to Sleeping Pills
Many people don’t realize that they’ve become addicted to sleeping pills, and many people who do know are in denial. For those individuals wanting to overcome their Ambien addiction, or an addiction to any other prescription sleeping pill, the best course of action is to seek professional help before the long-term effects of sleeping pills can result in severe physical or mental harm.
The first step to overcoming a sleeping pill addiction is to wean yourself off the medication. This should be done slowly, under the guidance of a medical doctor, to avoid or at least reduce the many painful and potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms that can result from giving up these kinds of drugs. Addiction treatment programs can be helpful for this process, and doctors who work at such facilities may help ameliorate your withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings through other forms of medication, such as antidepressants or anticonvulsants.
Detoxing with the help of an addiction treatment program can also help you address the psychological and behavioral sides of addiction. Even once your physical dependence has passed, you will still be vulnerable to relapse unless you discover and address the various factors that led you to become addicted to sleeping pills in the first place. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be very useful for learning new ways of thinking about your drug use, and new techniques for coping with insomnia and other trigger situations.
Many experts recommend reducing your dosage of sleeping pills over the course of several weeks to a few months before discontinuing the drug completely. During this time, you should seek recovery help through counseling and addiction support groups to foster your progress and avoid relapse.
Safe Ways to Cope with Insomnia
Recovery can be tricky when you are addicted to sleeping pills. Every night when you try to go to sleep, you face the temptation to relapse. Giving up sleeping pills will allow the insomnia that led you to first seek out a prescription to return, and a insomnia is also a withdrawal symptom. It’s important to get professional medical and psychological help to determine if your underlying insomnia is caused by a medical condition, or a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression. Treating the source problem will usually cure the insomnia.
For those people who were simply born with insomniac tendencies, there are behavioral changes that can help, such as practicing good sleep hygiene. This means establishing regular habits that support high quality sleep.
To fall asleep faster, and to sleep better for longer periods of time, you should:
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine in the afternoon and evening.
- Limit daytime naps to 20 to 30 minutes.
- Don’t spend too much time in bed. If you can’t fall asleep, get up and walk around or read for a while, so that you don’t associate your bed with wakefulness.
- Avoid screen time as bedtime approaches—if you must use a phone or tablet, put it on a warm, nighttime setting, and don’t hold it close to your face, as the light will block your body’s production of the melatonin you need to fall asleep.
- Get regular exercise.
- Avoid heavy, spicy or fried foods before bed, along with citrus fruits, and carbonated drinks. These can all cause acid reflux that will disturb your sleep.
- Get plenty of natural light during the day, and darkness at bedtime, to support a healthy balance of the hormones that control your sleep/wake cycles.