Abuse of Sleep Medication on the Rise

Insomnia robs much of the pleasure from life, and daily activities become increasingly difficult if the problem isn’t resolved. Insomnia isn’t an isolated problem; more than half of all people in Western Societies have trouble sleeping, and the rest of the world isn’t far behind. For example, research indicates that an estimated one-quarter of Asian people live with insomnia.

It isn’t surprising that many people turn to medications in order to get some much needed rest, and when taken correctly, prescribed sleep medications can be helpful. However, any type of sleeping pill carries a risk of addiction.

Sleep medication, including benzodiazepines, barbiturates and non-benzodiazepine sedatives, is intended as a temporary solution and should be taken for no longer than two to four weeks. Addiction professionals report that most people who take these meds for periods exceeding one to two months will become dependent on them, and will find it difficult to stop. Ideally, physicians should limit prescriptions to two weeks, however, over-prescribing is common.

While addiction is a primary concern, there are other worries associated with use of sleep medications. An article in the British Medical Journal reports that people who take sleep medication may be nearly four times more likely to die earlier and are more likely to be diagnosed with various forms of cancer than people who don’t take any. This is true even for people who aren’t addicted, including those that take sleeping medication only sporadically.

Sleeping pills are associated with a number of unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects such as constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, dry mouth, headache, nightmares, sleepwalking, depression, hallucinations, poor eye-hand coordination, loss of balance and impaired judgement.

People who take medications to relieve insomnia don’t set out to become addicted, but they may enjoy the feeling of being well rested so much that they take the pills longer than their physician recommends. Some people may continue to take the medications simply because enjoy the feelings of calm and relaxation that sleeping pills provide. Addiction occurs as the brain becomes accustomed to the medication (a condition known as tolerance). More and more of the drugs are needed to provide the same benefit, and people develop both psychological and physical dependence on the medications. It isn’t long before sleep is completely impossible without benefit of pills.

If you are dependent on sleep medications, never attempt to stop “cold turkey,” as stopping suddenly is not only tortuous, it is also dangerous and rarely ever successful.

Stopping sleeping pills needs planning and a strategy to avoid any withdrawal symptoms, which can be mild or severe, might involve anxiety, agitation, seizures, hallucinations, tremors, heart palpitations, body pain, nausea and vomiting, chills and fever. Some people experience a condition known as “rebound insomnia”, a form of insomnia much more severe than the problem the sleeping pills were initially intended to relieve.

Talk to your physician first to devise a plan for tapering off the drugs slowly. Don’t hesitate to seek treatment for this addiction, which should also address underlying issues (of which there are many) in a safe, supportive and understanding environment. No one needs to suffer when withdrawing from sleeping pills.

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