5 Signs You're Addicted to Sleeping Pills–and How to Fall Asleep Without Them
Yes, you really can be addicted to sleep meds. Here's how experts recommend kicking the habit.
Sleeping pills are among the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States, with some 4% of adults saying they’ve used them in the past month. While sleep aids may be helpful if used once in a while, taken too often, they may also lead to dependence or addiction.
This is especially true of the older types of sleeping pills known as benzodiazepines. These drugs include Valium or Xanax and are also commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders. Newer sleeping pills like Ambien and Sonata, often called “Z-drugs,” seem to be less physically addictive, though they may foster psychological addiction, says Steven Feinsilver, MD, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Physical addiction–in which the body adapts to a drug and responds physiologically if you stop taking it–to any kind of sleeping pill is rare, adds Tae Woo Park, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. But it can happen, as can psychological addiction, or when you think that you can’t sleep without meds. Here are some signs that you may have a problem–or be on your way to a problem–with your sleeping pills.
Symptoms of sleeping pill addiction or dependence
Steadily increasing your dosage is a classic sign of most addictions. Over time, the amount of drug you’ve been prescribed stops working and you need more and more to get the same effect–or you think you do. Although benzodiazepines are proven to be addictive, this effect may be more psychological than physical with the newer Z-drugs. You find yourself thinking you’ll need more to fall asleep, so you take more.
Some people can take sleeping pills every night for years–which may or may not be an addiction. “The question becomes what’s a treatment of a chronic condition versus what is abuse,” says Gregory Carter, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, “and that is something that is arguable.”
That said, long-term use of sleeping pills at any dose isn’t recommended. Taking these sleep aids for months or years and not being able to quit–despite trying–is another sign you may be addicted.
So is looking around for new doctors to write you a prescription, either for benzodiazepines or Z-drugs. “People do shop around,” says Dr. Feinsilver.
Taken in high enough amounts for long enough, sleeping pills, especially benzodiazepines, can lead to withdrawal symptoms. These are similar to alcohol withdrawal symptoms: You start to sweat, your blood pressure and heart rate go up, and you start to shake and get anxious, says Dr. Park.
Another sign of a sleeping-pill addiction is if you start blowing off social and professional obligations. “You start to have functional issues,” says Dr. Park. “You ignore things that you normally like to do because you want to use drugs. This affects interpersonal relationships. You don’t fulfill certain obligations like work or relationships or school. You spend more time using the substance than is typical. Those are all signs of addiction, whether it’s to sleeping pills, alcohol, or heroin.”
How to get help
If these symptoms sound familiar, there are ways to get help–and there are other ways to fall asleep, too. If you have a long-term habit of taking sleeping pills, don’t stop on your own. Talk to your doctor about how to taper off safely over a period of two to four months. This will minimize any withdrawal symptoms. Certain types of therapy can also help you sleep without meds.
Ideally, you should get a minimum of seven hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Surveys have shown that people who sleep less than that tend to use sleep aids more. Keeping a regular sleep schedule, exercising (though not right before bed), limiting screen time at night, and avoiding caffeine can all help you get more and better sleep, drug-free.
Don’t worry if you get a lousy night’s sleep every once in a while. “Many Americans feel they have to get a good night’s sleep in order to function, so they tend to use sleeping pills on a continuing basis where they may not need to,” says Dr. Carter. “If you only get four hours one night, you’ll still be able to function the following day. There’s a difference between getting less sleep one night and getting less sleep for a week.”
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