Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.
We’ve all been there: no matter how hard we try, we just can’t fall asleep. Whether stress or anxiety are keeping us awake or we’re suffering from a medical condition like insomnia, sleep deprivation can take a major toll on our ability to function.
As a result, many doctors prescribe sleeping pills to help patients fall asleep easier and stay asleep for longer periods of time. Sleeping pills generally include medications known as hypnotics, which have been developed specifically to improve sleep. Unfortunately, medications within this category can be habit-forming and addictive, so it’s important to understand which medication you are taking and the long-term risks of its use.
To help, we’ve put together some commonly asked questions about sleeping pills and their addictive properties.
What are Sleeping Pills?
A class of drug known as hypnotics is the most common form of sleeping pills. For many years, benzodiazepines were the most popular type of drug in this class, widely used by doctors to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders.
However, these drugs have become less popular in recent years due to their high potential for addiction. Instead, doctors now turn to drugs known as nonbenzodiazepines, or Z-drugs, which are believed to pose less of an addiction risk.
Whether you are taking a benzodiazepine hypnotic or a Z-drug, it’s important to speak with your doctor before beginning any prescription. In general, medical professionals will only prescribe sleeping pills for a limited amount of time, usually no more than 4 weeks, to avoid the risk of addiction.
Are There Natural Alternatives to Prescribing Sleeping Pills?
If you visit a doctor seeking help for sleep challenges, they will generally try other methods to help improve your sleep before prescribing you sleeping pills. These natural alternative techniques can include:
- Increased amounts of exercise
- Stress relief and management techniques
- Talk therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy
- Biofeedback and other forms of therapy designed for relaxation
- Changing the time you wake up and go to sleep
- Not watching television or looking at a screen before sleeping
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol before sleeping
- Lowering or raising the temperature in the bedroom
For certain conditions, however, sleeping pills may be necessary. Those cases typically include long-term insomnia, sleep apnea, dementia, or other medical complications. Even in these cases, however, most doctors will recommend using a pharmaceutical solution only on a short-term basis.
What are the Risks Associated with Sleeping Pills?
While sleeping pills can be effective solutions for temporary insomnia, their use can also increase the risk of health complications. A few of the risks associated with taking sleeping pills include:
Addiction and dependence
- Benzodiazepines in particular are highly addictive due to their effect on the brain’s chemical balance. Because they can slow down the brain and body, benzodiazepines can also be highly dangerous and can pose a significant overdose risk.
Interactions with other substances
- Combining benzodiazepines with other addictive substances, particularly alcohol or opioids, can be fatal. These drugs slow down the body’s key functions, including heart rate and breathing, and can lead to overdose, coma, and death.
- While you may be able to sleep better while taking sleeping pills, if you stop taking the pills or reduce the amount you are taking, you may experience insomnia that is worse than when you first sought treatment. This phenomenon is known as rebound insomnia and is common among hypnotic drugs.
Less and lower-quality sleep
- While sleeping pills can help you fall and stay asleep, their chemical properties often disrupt the quality and amount of sleep you get. For example, some hypnotic drugs make it more difficult for the user to experience REM sleep, which is critical for brain health.
What Should I Do if I am Addicted to Sleeping Pills?
Unfortunately, addiction to sleeping pills is a reality. If you believe that your use of sleeping pills has become problematic, look for common signs and symptoms of addiction, including:
- Hoarding or hiding prescription medications
- “Borrowing” prescription medications from friends or family
- Taking higher than the recommended dosage of a medication
- “Doctor shopping” to refill expired prescriptions
- Combining prescription medications with other addictive substances
- Neglecting work or family responsibilities in order to take medications
There are many additional signs of addiction, and everyone’s experience with addiction is different. If you believe you need help, please contact an addiction treatment program like the one here at Into Action Recovery Centers. Most reputable addiction treatment providers are experienced in treating prescription medication addiction to drugs including benzodiazepines and other sleep-related substances.
There is no shame in seeking help, so do so today. You can reach our team 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, at 844-694-3576.