Can You Become Addicted to Sleeping Pills?

Addiction to Sleeping Pills

At one time or another, insomnia has plagued just about everybody.

From the Latin word “insomnis,” which translates into “sleepless,” people with insomnia just can’t get to sleep. Perhaps even worse, when they do succeed in falling asleep, they frequently wake up and then have to start the vicious cycle all over again, leading to a frustrating night of tossing and turning. Insomnia can negatively affect one’s quality of life, wreaking havoc on their mood, energy levels and even work and family interactions. In fact, sleep deprivation has been shown to produce some rather severe physiological problems such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

From time to time, we all might have a little trouble sleeping. But for someone with chronic insomnia, every night is a battle to get some much-needed zzzzzzzs. According to the Mayo Clinic, causes of chronic insomnia include:

  • Stress
  • Travel or work schedule (working the graveyard shift)
  • Bad sleep habits
  • Eating too late
  • Mental-health issues like anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Medical conditions like asthma that can make sleeping difficult
  • Disorders like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome
  • Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol consumption

Because insomnia is so pervasive in our manic, always-on-the-go world, sleeping aids, both over the counter and prescription, are taken by millions of people every night.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a survey in 2013 that looked at data from the years 2005 – 2010. Some of their key findings are:

  • 4% of adults in the U.S. over 20 have used a prescription sleeping aid
  • Women use sleep aids more than men
  • Sleeping prescription use increases along with age and the amount of education a person has

The report also found that emergency room visits related to prescription sleeping aids nearly doubled in this time span, from 22,000 in 2005 to 42,000 in 2010.

How Sleeping Pills Work

There are a variety of sleeping aids on the market, both prescription and over-the-counter.

Over-the-counter aids tend to be made with diphenhydramine, a medication used to treat allergy symptoms. Diphenhydramine has a side effect that causes drowsiness. This occurs because it blocks histamine, a chemical that causes allergy symptoms. Histamine is also used by the body to create a feeling of alertness, so when histamine is reduced, drowsiness follows.

Most popular prescription sleep aids, such as Ambien, are Selective Gamma-aminobutyric Acid (GABA) medications. GABA is distributed through the brain. When GABA interacts with a “GABA receptor,” it typically tells it to reduce its level of activity. GABA-based sleep medications are designed to only work on GABA receptors believed to be involved in falling and staying asleep. Drugs like Valium and Xanax are also GABA medications, but unlike dedicated sleeping pills, they don’t target a specific GABA receptor in the brain. Instead of just triggering sleep, they tend to bring the whole person “down” and are commonly used to treat general anxiety issues.

In addition to physical cravings, someone with an addiction issue will also spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about their drug of choice. These thoughts become a compulsion and impossible to control, which leads to drug-seeking behavior that can sometimes be criminal.

Feelings of depression, sadness, anxiety, despair, and the like are often at the root of substance abuse. The substance might temporarily mask these feelings, but they return once the high wears off, creating a vicious circle of drug abuse.

Taking a substance will temporarily stop the cravings and compulsion for it, but soon the same feelings return. In time, it takes more and more of the same substance to achieve the same effect it once had.

People addicted to drugs and alcohol may feel like they have no control over their drug use. Refraining from using or stopping seems to be an impossibility for them. The substance controls them, rather than the other way around.

Someone addicted to drugs or alcohol will continue to seek them out even if their addiction has made them lose friends, family, spouses, and jobs. Drug-seeking behavior can even lead to diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

Common Sleeping Aids

Generally speaking, there are four types of sleeping aids on the market.

Over the Counter

Sleep aids you can purchase at your neighborhood pharmacy typically contain diphenhydramine as their primary active ingredient. Many of these drugs are actually for colds and allergies. These include:

  • Benadryl
  • Aleve PM
  • Unisom

GABA Specific

These are prescription sleeping aids that target specific GABA receptors in the brain to help induce sleep. These include drugs like:

  • Ambien
  • Lunesta
  • Sonata

GABA General

On occasion, drugs intended to treat general anxiety are also prescribed for sleep. These include:

  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Halcion
  • Restoril
  • Atavan

Other Remedies

The fourth type of sleeping aid may be generally headed under the category of “natural supplements.” These have gained widespread use, and there is growing scientific evidence that shows their effectiveness. These sorts of drugs include:

  • Valerian root
  • Melatonin
  • Magnesium
  • Tryptophan
  • L-Theanine

Sleeping Pill Addiction Symptoms

Although rare, it is possible to become physically addicted to modern sleeping pills.

However, it’s much more common to become addicted to the older class of benzodiazepine drugs like Valium and Xanax.

However, dependence on prescription sleep aids does happen. Like most other drug issues, one of the clearest warning signs you have an addiction to sleeping pills is the constant need to keep increasing the dose in order to get the same effect. Another common addiction symptom is an increased feeling of anxiety that you can’t get to sleep without the help of the prescription. Long-term use of a drug that is only supposed to be taken temporarily is also a sign that you may have a problem.

Other sleeping pill addiction symptoms include:

  • Several failed attempts to quit
  • Cravings for sleeping prescriptions – relying on them nightly
  • Visiting multiple doctors to obtain prescriptions
  • Taking pills despite negative consequences
  • Taking pills to feel euphoric effects
  • Running out of your prescription early

If you are considering treatment for yourself or a loved one, call us today.

Physical and Mental Effects of Abuse

Prescription sleeping pill addiction is no joke. Prolonged abuse of these drugs come with many unpleasant and even dangerous side effects, such as:

  • Slurred speech
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Unsteady gait
  • Inability to focus
  • Impaired memory
  • Unusual euphoria
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Difficulty with coordination
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Unusual dreams
  • Itching and swelling
  • Lightheadedness
  • Depressed breathing rate
  • Memory loss


As tolerance builds for sleeping pills, people might find themselves taking a dosage many times what their doctor prescribed. Taken over time and in too high a quantity, sleeping pills like Ambien have been known to cause sleepwalking, sleep talking, sleeping eating (which leads to weight gain!), and even sleep sex – all without the person having any idea these activities have taken place.

How to Safely Stop Using Sleeping Pills

The NCBI clearly states that “The best way to stop taking sleeping pills or sedatives is to gradually reduce the dose with the guidance of a doctor. Psychological or therapeutic support can help.” Withdrawing from sleeping pills is never fatal, but going off them too rapidly can cause severe symptoms:

  • Body spasms
  • Seizures
  • Insomnia
  • Delirium
  • Anxiety
  • Drug cravings
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hand tremors
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

One of the worst side effects of withdrawing from sleeping pills is something called “rebound insomnia.” When a user stops taking the drug, they may find that their sleep actually becomes worse. Rebound insomnia can cause increased anxiety and even bizarre dreams that occur when the person finally does fall asleep. So, it makes sense that rebound insomnia is a common trigger for people to begin using the drug all over again.

Treatment Considerations

Becoming addicted to a substance like sleeping pills often means there are other psychological issues going on as well.

Boutique treatment centers like Nexus offer specialized treatment for prescription drug addiction that seek to treat the whole person rather than just the addiction. Nexus even has programs that target the specific needs of both men and women.

Treatment programs typically include a mix of counseling, coaching, and activities such as:

  • Individual Therapy
  • Group Therapy
  • Family Therapy
  • 12-Step Groups
  • 12-Step Alternatives
  • Medication Monitoring
  • Life Skills Coaching
  • Spiritual Guidance
  • Mindfulness Activities
  • Experiential Therapies
  • Group Outings
  • Health and Fitness Education
  • Peer Mentorship Program

Treatment can be inpatient or outpatient, but for someone with a severe addiction, an inpatient program is preferred where the patient can have medically supervised detox and be monitored 24 hours a day. Inpatient treatment might be especially important for someone who has failed in past attempts at rehab for their sleeping pill addiction.Nexus Recovery has many levels of care available. Whether you need help, or someone you love does, please contact Nexus today to get started on your journey of recovery.

If you or a loved one are suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, we’re here to help. Contact us today and speak with one of our trusted recovery advisors.

Sign up for our Monthly Newsletter and get our blogs delivered right to your inbox!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Call Now