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Sleeping Pill Use, Addiction, And Treatment Options

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Sleeping pills are meant to be a temporary solution to insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep). Most of these drugs are prescribed for a brief amount of time. Some people take sleeping pills outside of prescription limitations, which can lead to physical dependence and addiction.

What Are Sleeping Pills?

Prescription sleeping pills are sedative-hypnotic drugs that depress the central nervous system (CNS). This causes the mind and body to relax so a person can fall asleep. Extended-release sleeping pills, like Ambien CR (zolpidem), enter the body more gradually and regulate sleep throughout the night.

Usually, sleeping pills are prescribed for seven to 10 days. Their purpose is to relieve insomnia so that a person can get back on a healthy sleep schedule. Once this occurs, sleeping pills should no longer be needed.

Some sleeping pills, including zolpidem (Ambien), zaleplon (Sonata), and eszopiclone (Lunesta), are referred to as Z-drugs. This is not only because of their names but also because they are not benzodiazepines like other sleep medications such as temazepam (Restoril) and triazolam (Halcion).


Z-drugs are classified as nonbenzodiazepines. Though different in chemical structure, these drugs work similarly to benzodiazepine sleep aids. This means that they have comparable side effects and prescription guidelines.

Over-the-counter sleep aids are also available. Diphenhydramine, an antihistamine found in Benadryl, is sold as a sleeping pill for occasional use. Doxylamine succinate (Unisom SleepTabs) is another antihistamine used to treat insomnia.

Though antihistamine sleep aids are marketed as non-habit-forming, individuals may develop a tolerance to them and use them for their sedative effects.

Signs Of Sleeping Pill Use

It can be hard to discern the signs of sleeping pill use if a person takes them at bedtime. Their friends and family may not be aware if they continue taking sleep medication after their prescription has run out.

One way to tell if someone is using sleep medication when they shouldn’t be is to look for symptoms of sleeping pill use, which is more likely to occur if the substance is used.

Symptoms associated with sleeping pills include:

  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • headache
  • memory loss (amnesia)
  • abnormal thinking
  • worsened depression
  • bizarre sleep behavior

Both benzodiazepine and non-benzodiazepine sleeping pills can cause individuals to sleepwalk and engage in unusual behavior while asleep. This may also happen with antihistamines, though it is not as common.

People have reportedly cooked food, drove vehicles and had sex while under the influence of prescription sleeping pills. These people do not usually remember what happened when they wake up. This can occur even when sleep medication is taken as prescribed, and the risk increases when it is used.

When someone takes sleeping pills for insomnia, they should have seven to eight hours to sleep. Without an adequate time frame, a person is likely to be very drowsy the next day, making it dangerous for them to engage in focused activities like driving. Drowsiness is also a possibility if someone takes a dose larger than prescribed.

It may be easier to tell that someone is abusing sleeping pills if they take them and purposefully stay awake. Sedative-hypnotic drugs can have a pleasant, calming effect. Unfortunately, misusing sleeping pills to experience a high comes with the same risk of side effects like strange behavior and memory loss.

Signs Of Sleeping Pill Addiction

Sleeping pills cause people to build a tolerance over time, meaning that more of the drug is required to have the same effect. They also lead to physical dependence, which causes uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms like vomiting, sweating, tremors and convulsions when the drug is not taken. Because of this, doctors recommend that patients taper off of sleep medication rather than stop using it abruptly.

Physical dependence often goes hand-in-hand with addiction. As the body becomes accustomed to taking sleeping pills, the brain may begin to crave them as well. Eventually, an individual may feel that they need the sleeping pill in order to sleep or experience a high (depending on their preferred use).

When a person is addicted, they are more concerned about taking the drug than about the negative effects it may have on their health and life. In severe addictions, the drug becomes more important than anything else.

Signs that someone may be suffering from addiction to sleeping pills include:

  • doctor shopping to obtain several prescriptions
  • taking someone else’s prescription
  • secretive behavior
  • financial strain
  • shift in priorities
  • time spent doing drugs or seeking them
  • poor performance at work or school

Dangers Of Sleeping Pill Use And Addiction

People who use sleeping pills risk engaging in unsafe activities while under the influence of these drugs. Behavior like driving while impaired and having unprotected sex have the potential to cause harm to the individual and to others.

Sleeping pills can cause respiratory issues if taken in excess. When the central nervous system (CNS) is depressed, a person’s breathing and heart rate decrease. If someone takes too much sleep medication at a time, their heartbeat and breathing could be slowed to dangerous levels. This could result in brain damage, loss of consciousness, coma or death.

Taking sleeping pills with alcohol, opioids, or any other central nervous system depressants can be life-threatening as well. Compounding the effects of these drugs raises the chance of serious respiratory depression. Polysubstance use with any drug increases overdose risk.

Those who take sleeping pills and stay awake to get high may end up taking multiple doses to maintain pleasant effects, which can also lead to overdose. It takes time for the body to completely process sleeping pills, and if they are still present in the body when another dose is taken, the chance of overdose goes up.

Treatment For Sleeping Pill Addiction

The best treatment plan for sleeping pill addiction considers all aspects of a person’s well-being. Every person is unique, so treatment programs should be tailored to the individual. A combination of evidence-based therapies has proven to be the most effective approach.

Behavioral therapy is a core component of addiction treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy identifies negative thought patterns that lead to substance use so a person can change their behavior and make more positive choices. Dialectical behavior therapy improves a person’s emotional regulation and the ability to deal with stress.

These therapies are often accompanied by individual counseling, group therapy, recreation, and expressive arts. The variety of methods in an individualized treatment program provides those struggling with addiction with the tools they need to live healthier lives.