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It starts innocently enough.
A problem-filled week at work, relationship troubles or a tragic loss can all make falling asleep at night seem like an insurmountable challenge. Doctors will often prescribe sleeping pills to help their patients cope with this temporary setback.
But what happens when you become dependent on them and can’t sleep without a daily Ambien? What do you do if you’re experiencing side effects or you’re concerned about long-term damage to your health?
If your answer is to quit and go cold turkey, then you’re in for a tough, and even dangerous, battle. There’s a safer and better way to get off sleeping pills, and we’ll share doctor-recommended techniques to help you kick the habit with minimal disruption to your daily routine.
Long-Term Effects of Sleeping Pills
Like any drug, your body will build up a tolerance over time. If you’re a coffee drinker, you might remember that when you first incorporated it into your morning routine, it would jolt you awake and keep you focused until lunchtime. But after a while, you probably noticed that you need two or three cups just to function.
The same is true with sleeping pills. You may need to continually increase your dosage in order to fall asleep. And if you decide to skip a night or two, you may find that you won’t be able to get to go to bed easily without medication.
You’ve heard of sleepwalking and sleep eating. These are fairly common occurrences in people who take these medications for extended periods. Parasomnia refers to unusual or abnormal behavior while you’re asleep. There are several theories about why this occurs, and it’s believed that sleeping pills suppress REM sleep, which is the dreaming stage of the sleep cycle.
The result is people taking medications like Ambien end up sleepwalking, eating while they’re asleep, driving, and even committing violent acts like murder.
Despite all of our modern, technological advances, there are still many mysteries we have yet to solve when it comes to sleep and our brains. One thing that drug companies have realized is that sleeping pills may stay in our systems longer than anticipated, especially among women.
This can lead to feeling the effects the next morning. The daily drive to work suddenly becomes a lot more dangerous if you can barely stay awake for it!
Your spouse or family members may inform you that you’ve been acting strangely. It’s possible that you’re experiencing parasomnias (discussed above) without them even realizing that you’re actually asleep.
Remember when we said that the brain and sleep are still somewhat of a mystery? Well, it turns out that we’re still learning about the effects that prescription drugs have on our nerve and motor systems. One study found that patients in the hospital who took zolpidem (Ambien) were four times more likely to fall during their stay than patients that abstained from prescription sleep aids.
So, before you panic, we’ll explain this unintended side effect in more detail. That being said, there are three different ways that sleeping pills can kill you:
- You do something incredibly dangerous while you’re asleep, like driving, walking into the street, picking a fight with an MMA champion, etc.
- High doses of sleeping pills can affect your ability to breathe, which naturally, can lead to death.
- There’s a study linking an increased death rate to those on prescription sleep aids. However, the relationship doesn’t show cause and effect, merely a correlation.
What is Sleeping Pill Withdrawal?
As with any drug, there’s a detoxification period that happens when a patient stops using it. In the case of sleeping pills, the withdrawal can be painful both physically and psychologically. As the remainder of the drug leaves the system, patients may experience diarrhea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration.
Another form of withdrawal is psychological. If a patient has become dependent on a pill to help them fall asleep, they’re likely going to feel that they can’t go to bed without the medication.
Tips for Sleeping without a Pill
Go to Bed Later
Not long ago, Dr. Oz interviewed Dr. Michael Breus to ask how to fall asleep faster and more easily without having to resort to medication. Dr. Breus identified a technique called, “Sleep Restriction.”
Here’s how it works:
For one week keep a log of what time you went to bed and when you fell asleep (you may need the assistance of a sleep tracker). After the week is finished, average out the timelines and come up with a baseline. For example, you may have gone to bed at 10 p.m. each night, but sleep could have alluded you until 11 p.m.
The next step is to add 30 minutes to the time on the clock when you fall asleep and make that your new bedtime. So, in this example, your new bedtime would be 11:30 p.m.
You’re probably wondering if this would make you feel tired, groggy, and sleep deprived.
The answer is yes, and that’s the point. By forcing your body into a period of exhaustion, you’ll be more successful in establishing a sleep routine.
Use a Reverse Power Hour
Spend an hour at the end of the day doing things to unwind. This might mean preparing for the next day so that you don’t sit up at night worrying. Whatever tasks you normally do in the morning, complete the night before. It might be ironing your clothes, setting up the coffee maker or packing your briefcase.
Finish your Tasks
If you have a to-do list a mile long (who doesn’t), it might be keeping you up at night. Why not use this time to start crossing things off your list. Not only will the activity contribute to making you feel tired, the satisfaction you’ll feel from accomplishing something tangible can help ease your stress and worry.
Have a Bedtime Routine
Another thing you can do during this time is to establish a nightly routine that prepares you for bed. It could be as simple as brushing your teeth, but we recommend having a series of set steps done in order. That way, when you do them, your body realizes that it’s time for bed and you’re more likely to be tired.
For example, in addition to brushing your teeth, you may also want to enjoy a cup of herbal tea, read a few minutes of a favorite book, and moisturize your hands and face thoroughly. Whatever routine you choose, make sure you do it immediately before bed.
Many of us go straight to bed when the clock says it’s time for sleep. But, it might be more conducive to sleep to do something relaxing that’s not in bed. That way, you train yourself that your bed is only for sleeping (and sex) and that you can do other enjoyable and quiet activities outside the bedroom that prepare you for bedtime.
Examples of relaxation activities include meditation, journaling, praying, and reading.
Taper Off Your Sleep Meds
Resist the urge to dramatically flush your sleep meds down the toilet. You’ll regret it. Instead, we suggest tapering off gradually, so that you can give your body time to adjust.
Here’s what Dr. Breus suggests for tapering off successfully:
- For the first two weeks, take half of your usual nightly dose.
- When week three occurs, cut your dosage in half again. Now you’re down to one-quarter of your original prescription.
- Continue that dose through week four.
- Keeping with that same dose, switch to taking it once every third night instead of every night of the week.
- By the end of the fifth week, most people are successfully off the medication.
Sleeping Pill Withdrawal Symptoms
Everyone’s reaction will be different, but there are some commonalities that you’ll be likely to encounter during the withdrawal period.
You may experience withdrawal symptoms within 24 hours of ceasing medication, and most people have them within 72 hours. Confusion, anxiety, and shifts in mood are common. People who’ve been heavy users for extended periods may experience hallucinations, convulsions, and vomiting.
As more of the drug leaves the system, the body escalates its reactions. In addition to having problems sleeping, patients also report sweating, elevated heart rates, and even tremors. These symptoms usually occur within the first week to ten days.
When patients make it to the second week of withdrawal, they’ll notice that symptoms become less pronounced, and may begin to fade. However, the relief may be short-lived, as some patients will report feeling depressed.
As week three of withdrawal approaches, symptoms fade for most patients. However, those who were on high doses for long periods may find that it takes weeks, if not months, to feel normal again.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is rebound insomnia?
Rebound insomnia happens when you stop taking sleep meds, and then you have an even more challenging time falling asleep than you did before you went on the prescription. The reason is that the pills have affected your body’s ability to fall asleep naturally. With the drugs out of your system, you go back to having problems falling asleep; only now you’ve dulled your ability to do it naturally. It’s like insomnia, but worse.
Are sleeping pills addictive?
Yes, in a sense. Though you won’t be “jonesing for a fix” of Ambien, you should be aware that sleeping pills are habit-forming. Further, you can definitely become dependent on them in order to fall asleep.
How long can withdrawal symptoms last?
The amount of time you can expect to have withdrawal symptoms depends on how strong your dose is and how long you’ve been taking it. Many patients see their symptoms dissipate within about ten days, but for other long-term users, it could take weeks or months.
While it’s hard to resist the idea of a quick fix and a restful night, it’s critical to keep in mind that the benefit of a drug-induced eight hours of sleep comes at a price. Not only do you tinker with your body’s chemistry, you also increase the odds of hurting yourself or someone you love.
We’re not here to tell you never to take a sleeping pill. However, we do urge you to proceed with care and use caution whenever deciding to solve a health problem with prescription medication.
Sources and References:
- Learn the risks of sleep aids – health.harvard.edu
- Sleeping Pills & Natural Sleep Aids – helpguide.org
- Sleeping Pill Addiction and Abuse – addictioncenter.com