To achieve the best health and wellbeing, the average adult requires a minimum of seven hours of sleep. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), short sleep duration is defined as less than seven hours of sleep per 24-hour period. Unfortunately, insufficient sleep affects a vast majority of the United States. If you’re one of those people, you’ve likely experimented with over-the-counter sleep medication or been prescribed sleeping pills by a doctor.
In the average sleep period, a person will experience four to six sleep cycles, with REM sleep making up between 20 to 25 percent of total sleep in a healthy adult. On average, we’ll spend nearly two hours a night dreaming. The key driver of our body’s circadian rhythm, otherwise known as the internal clock, is comprised of 20,000 neurons. Even more interesting, our body temperature drops by one to two degrees.
According to the Sleep Association Organization, nearly 50 to 70 million adults in the United States have a sleep disorder. A reported 37.9 percent of people unintentionally fell asleep during the day at least one in the past month, and another 4.7 percent reported falling asleep or nodding off while driving at least once in the previous month.
Insomnia is the most common sleep condition, with short-term issues measuring around 30 percent and longer-term issues around ten percent. In some cases, when a person has tried everything to achieve restful sleep, they might turn to sleeping pills as a last resort. Unfortunately, prolonged use of sleeping pills can lead to tolerance, dependence, addiction, and withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms can last several weeks, and the severity will be dependent upon how long you’ve used the medication and the dosage you’ve become tolerant to. The best way to manage sleeping pill withdrawals is by going through medical detox.
What Are Common Sleeping Pill Withdrawal Symptoms?
Those who abruptly cease the use of sleeping pills report varying levels of withdrawal symptoms. Since sleeping pills cause psychological and physical dependence, it makes them particularly challenging to overcome. However, with the right treatment plan in place, you can safely rid of the medication from your system and focus on getting your life back on track.
The severity of withdrawal symptoms will vary from one person to another based on factors such as age, how long you’ve been using the medication, dosage, and size of the last dose taken. These factors will also dictate the severity, but a common set of symptoms include the following:
- Body spasms
- Heart rate changes
Most withdrawal symptoms associated with sleeping pills aren’t considered life-threatening. However, complications can occur if you aren’t careful in monitoring them. Rebound insomnia is the most common symptom that occurs because the body is still dependent on the drug to fall asleep in the first several weeks after stopping. During this span, the individual’s insomnia returns, and in some cases, worse than before they started using the medication.
Sleeping Pill Withdrawal Timeline And Symptom Durations
As was mentioned above, the timeline for sleeping withdrawal is dependent on several factors. It’s possible that a person encounters these symptoms several hours after the last dose.
Generally speaking, symptoms will decrease in intensity the following week after quitting, although psychological symptoms can persist for up to a month. In the first few days after stopping sleeping pills, you’ll experience nausea, vomiting, anxiety, and sometimes, hallucinations.
Anywhere from four to ten days after stopping, it’s common to experience drug cravings. At this point, withdrawal symptoms should peak, and the symptoms will start tapering off around 11 to 17 days after cessation. Psychological symptoms will persist for another week or so. Heavy sleeping pill dependency has been known to cause drug cravings and depression for several months.
Sleeping Pills: How Do They Work?
We’ve all experienced the heavy drag at work or class after a sleepless night. The senses are dulled, your eyes are burning, and more than anything else, your desire is to crawl back in bed. Although this doesn’t happen to everyone, others are used to these effects on an almost daily basis.
There are two primary categories of drugs that are used to treat sleep disorders – benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines like Z-drugs.
Benzodiazepines, also known as benzos for short, are a potent class of drugs that are incredibly addictive and dangerous. This class of drugs is also known for treating anxiety conditions. The most common benzos are Valium, Ativan, and Xanax.
Benzos work in a similar fashion to alcohol by calming the mind and directly interacting with the inhibitor GABA, also known as gamma-Aminobutyric acid. The unique chemical interacts with neurons in our brains to suppress electrical excitation, which essentially calms down the brain.
Unfortunately, benzos can be highly addicting and lead to severe or even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Similar to alcohol, benzos can lead to seizures or delirium tremens (DTs), meaning a person going through withdrawal must seek immediate medical attention.
Sedative-hypnotics are an overarching category of drugs that benzodiazepines are a part of as well. However, benzos have increased in popularity to the point of being branches into their own separate group. These drugs also interact with GABA in the brain and activate receptor sites that help a person fall asleep, while benzos will act on all the receptors. Fortunately, it allows for non-benzos to be less addictive. However, that chance isn’t totally eliminated.
Long And Short-Term Effects Of Sleeping Pills
In the short term, sleeping pill abuse can lead to various issues that are detrimental to our health. They can also lead to a host of side effects that include the following:
- Changes in appetite
- Tingling or burning in the extremities
- Daytime drowsiness
- Balance difficulties
- Dry throat or mouth
- Confusion or other concentration problems
- Impairment the following day
- Tenderness or stomach pain
- Unusual dreams
- Uncontrollable shaking
The long-term problems might even be worse. For example, a lot of these drugs are known to cause parasomnias, which are behaviors characterized by walking, moving, talking, or performing other actions without being aware you’re doing them. It’s similar to sleepwalking but more complex.
Parasomnias can also include making phone calls, eating, or driving a vehicle. It can lead to issues ranging from forgotten conversations, unintentional weight gain, all the way to fatal car crashes.
Long-term abuse of sleeping pills is problematic, especially when it’s combined with other sedatives like opioids, alcohol, or other benzodiazepines. The drugs will cause an even more intense sedative effect when used together, leading to a dangerous drop in respiration that causes brain damage, coma, and even death.
Benzodiazepines are particularly dangerous with long term abuse because these drugs are connected with permanent brain damage, which can result in behavioral abnormalities, brain damage, and other severe cognitive dysfunctions.
Dependence On Sleeping Pills
As we’ve described above, those who use Z-drugs or benzodiazepines in high doses for too long can quickly become dependent or addicted. It’s vital for a person to use as low a dose as possible for as short a time as possible. It’s impossible to say at what stage their drug use becomes a problem as it varies from one person to another, but it’s likely that they become dependent after a couple of weeks. However, it’s rather common for these drugs to be used for several months or even permanently.
Tapering Avoids Withdrawal Symptoms And Relapse
Withdrawal symptoms are a standard part of using drugs. Depending on the specific drug used, symptoms might appear in a few hours, while others can be delayed and occur weeks after use has been discontinued. Other common symptoms include shivering or circulation problems and restlessness. To avoid relapse, it’s vital to minimize withdrawal symptoms when stopping the use of the medication.
Although it’s not easier to stop using benzodiazepines, using a substitute medication while reducing the dose can help minimize withdrawal symptoms and help in the long-term when it comes to potentially relapsing.
If you’ve become dependent on sleeping pills and you’re worried about the future, it might be time to discuss it with a medical professional. They can get you in touch with the necessary options to lead a life free from drugs.