People use sleeping pills primarily to relieve insomnia, that is, to fall asleep quickly, stay asleep, and awaken refreshed. However, due to risks associated with prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications, perhaps using chemicals is not the best solution.
Moreover, while using any drug is a personal choice, people should first consider why they cannot easily drift off and remain asleep before turning to short-acting and highly addictive benzodiazepines, explained a treatment advocate for Ark Behavioral Health, Sarah O’Brien, during a recent interview.
The number of individuals with sleep problems is [rising] due to mental health issues from outside stressors. We saw a big uptake during the pandemic. [It was] the lack of movement — exercise or getting outside, — lack of routine, schedules. Everything really all came to a halt in 2020.
We found a lot of people were having trouble falling asleep at night, whether it was sitting at a desk day at home, never really getting up or going through the motions.
Since 2020, Ark Behavioral Health has seen a notable increase in those needing help to overcome their sleeping pill addiction. “It’s getting more common. When it comes to over-the-counter sleeping pills, people don’t think they are addictive, that it’s not a medication,” O’Brien continued.
The National Library of Medicine (NIH) explains that insomnia is defined by a positive response to either of the following questions: “‘Do you experience difficulty sleeping?’ or ‘Do you have difficulty falling or staying asleep,'” according to the National Library of Medicine. The disorder is identified using these categories:
- Acute or adjustment insomnia is the most common and typically lasts from a few days to a few weeks. It can strike after a stressful event happens, like the death of a loved one, moving, or starting a new job. Physical discomfort, some medications, jet lag, and illness are also examples of adjustment insomnia causes.
- Chronic insomnia is diagnosed when a person has trouble sleeping at least three days a week for at least one month. This type of sleeping disorder is further broken down into two categories. Primary chronic insomnia former has no apparent cause or underlying medical condition. Whereas secondary or comorbid insomnia occurs with a medical or mental health condition, medications, stimulants, or lifestyle choices, like working a rotating shift.
- Onset insomnia is the term used when a person has trouble falling asleep. This can be a short-term or chronic problem, with psychological or psychiatric issues like stress, anxiety, or depression being the most common cause.
- Maintenance insomnia is the opposite of onset. It is defined as difficulty staying asleep or waking up too early and having trouble falling back to sleep due to mental health or medical conditions.
The Problem With Sleeping Pills
In a given year, about 30% of Americans report experiencing insomnia, and roughly 12% turn to prescription pills. However, there are problems with using sleep aids, including numerous side effects: “Memory problems, morning drowsiness, changes in appetite, headaches, shaking, stomach upset, and changes in testosterone and menstrual cycle,” according to a psychiatrist from Mental Help.
The most significant difficulty comes with long-term use: Eventually, sleeping pills quit working as the body develops a tolerance. As a result, people need to increase their dosage to achieve the same effect. And this addiction occurs no matter if the sleep aid is prescription, homeopathic, or other OTC products sold to help with insomnia.
Benzodiazepines and other “Z” drugs, commonly used to handle insomnia, are addictive. O’Brien said these medications are highly abused by people who do not understand they are addicted and need help to quit.
Another complication is the rebound effect that happens when a person discontinues or reduces the dose of their sleep aid. As a result, insomnia can re-emerge, sometimes worse. Experts advise people to seek assistance from a physician or addiction-recovery specialist to break the deadly cycle.
A Good Night’s Sleep Without Pills
While sleep medication is most definitely needed in some situations, “consulting a doctor would be, first and foremost, talking to a trusted medical professional about what’s going on is my first recommendation,” O’Brien explained.
During the discussion, a doctor can explain the risks of taking sleeping pills and lifestyle choices that could bring on sleep problems. Getting a good night’s sleep could be as simple as changing caffeine intake: cut coffee and soda out completely or stop drinking at least six hours before bedtime.
Since sleeping pills do not address why someone experiences insomnia, learning to manage stressors and mood is essential because sleep aids do not reduce anxiety, alleviate depression, or process an emotionally challenging event.
For most people, the amount of stress they face does not determine how good they feel or if they experience insomnia. Instead, it is how they interpret stress, focus, and if they have developed the understanding and skills needed to go through life’s twists and turns healthily.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
Interview: Sarah O’Brien with Ark Behavioral Health; Aug. 19, 2022
Web MD: How Do Sleeping Pills Really Work? By Salynn Boyles, Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
Health: Could You Have a Sleeping Pill Addiction? By Amanda Gardner
Mental Help: Insomnia: When Sleeping Pills Don’t Work; by Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.