Are Sleeping Pills Addictive?
Many of us think of addiction as the compulsive use of illegal drugs, opioids, alcohol, and out-of-control behaviors like excessive gambling. But the use of sleeping pills, even those prescribed by your doctor, can also be dangerous and addictive.
While the use of sleeping pills is common, research finds most users experience unpleasant, potentially dangerous side effects, and do not receive the relief they are seeking. A July 2018 survey by Consumer Reports found two-thirds of respondents did not wake refreshed and reported side effects like feeling drowsy, confused, or forgetful the next day. Three percent reported they dozed off while driving the day after taking a sleeping pill.
While it is possible to become addicted to sleeping pills after using a short while, it is more common for addiction to happen over prolonged use.
What are Sleeping Pills?
Doctors prescribe sleeping pills to combat insomnia. Some sleeping pills help you fall asleep, while others help you stay asleep or go back to sleep after awakening during the night. As insomnia can be a sign of depression or another mood disorder, certain medications prescribed to treat insomnia are also used to treat depression or anxiety.
Depending on the composition, a sleeping pill may have hypnotic, sedative, or tranquilizing effects. Most sleeping pills work by triggering the brain to slow down the central nervous system, promoting drowsiness.
Because sleeping pills can be habit-forming, most experts advise against taking them long term. They pose a high risk for serious side effects, dependence, and addiction.
Do not assume that sleep aids purchased over-the-counter are safe either. When taking regularly, you can build up a tolerance, become addicted, or even overdose on OTC sleep medications. OTC sleep aids can also have dangerous side effects, including drowsiness, memory impairment, and confusion.
Understanding How Addictive Substances Affect the Brain
To understand how addiction to sleeping pills can occur, it is helpful to understand what addiction is and how the brain works to support addictive behavior.
Merriam Webster defines addiction as a “compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence.”
The brain constantly rewires and forms new connections as it learns, stores memories, encounters new information, and undergoes new experiences. Scientists call this neuroplasticity.
When you experience something positive or pleasurable, the reward center of your brain increases the levels of dopamine in your brain, reinforcing the experience as something desirable. Dopamine, also known as the “feel good” chemical, is a natural brain chemical that influences your mood and motivation.
As you repeat the behavior, the brain rewires itself (neuroplasticity) until it eventually demands the behavior in order to deliver the reward. In fact, over time, the brain demands greater amounts of the substance or behavior to trigger the desired effect. When this happens, you have developed a tolerance to the substance.
Tolerance is dangerous and often leads to addiction. As you increase your intake of the addictive substance, like a sleeping pill, you are increasing your risk of death by overdose, or from another related cause. Once tolerance has developed, you will probably experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking the medication.
Even if your sleeping pill is not giving you the restful sleep you crave, you may convince yourself that without the pill, you will never get to sleep. This can lead to psychological dependence, prompting you to continue taking the pill, perhaps at even higher doses than recommended. This can lead to dangerous side effects, including addiction and death.
It is important to note that combining sleeping pills with alcohol or other medications can be deadly.
Warning Signs of Sleeping Pill Dependence and Addiction
As mentioned above, if you have developed a tolerance to sleeping pills, meaning you need a higher dose to achieve the desired effect, and abruptly stop taking them, you will experience withdrawal symptoms.
Common withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, shivering, trouble sleeping, circulation problems, and more.
Warning signs of dependence or addiction may include:
- Using pills during the day to treat anxiety.
- Impaired speech or motor function.
- Overly concerned about running out of pills.
- “Doctor shopping” for prescription refills.
- Hiding the fact you are using sleeping pills.
- Trying but failing to quit using.
- Developing a tolerance and needing an increasingly higher dose.
- Continuing to use the pills despite negative consequences.
- Exhibiting an unusually elevated mood.
- Experiencing worse than normal sleep on the nights you don’t take pills. Known as “rebound insomnia,” this can cause nightmares, increased anxiety, or panic attacks.
Because withdrawal from sleeping pills after long-term use can be dangerous, it is important to be under medical supervision during the process. Severe withdrawal effects can include tremors, delirium, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, and seizures. Seek a qualified detox program, where health professionals can monitor you and administer medications to keep you more comfortable.
Treatment For Sleep Disorders
Most experts recommend behavioral therapy rather than sleeping pills for sleep disorders. Therapy can help you understand the source of your insomnia, which often has a psychological component. Through individual, group, and family counseling, and by learning to manage stress and other negative emotions, you can overcome your sleep disorder and enjoy a healthier, happier life.
Midwest Recovery Centers
At Midwest Recovery Centers, our compassionate staff specializes in treating prescription or illegal drug dependence, alcohol dependence, co-occurring disorders, and other addictive behaviors while also providing education through a monthly support meeting for the families of those struggling. Contact Midwest Recovery Centers today to start your recovery.
Reviewed and Assessed by
Taylor Brown, B.A.Com., MAADC II
Tim Coleman, M. of Ed.