It's a common scenario: you take sleeping medication to relieve insomnia, and sleep comes so easily, you feel like the problem is solved. But instead of finding restful, unmedicated sleep, your insomnia is raging back to life.
This backlash of sleeplessness after stopping medication is known as rebound insomnia, and it can be quite frustrating. Learn what rebound insomnia is, how long it lasts, and some of the possible side effects of sleeping pills.
When you take sleeping pills, the drugs affect chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. For example, non-benzodiazepine hypnotics like Ambien work by increasing levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps promote sleep.
One of the long-term effects of Ambien and similar drugs is that the body can grow dependent on the artificial stimulant. When you stop taking the medication, you essentially withdraw because the brain is no longer receiving the drug it needs to create adequate amounts of GABA.
Rebound insomnia occurs when you have difficulty returning to your natural sleep pattern without the help of drugs.
Rebound insomnia typically lasts one or two nights after the medication is stopped. However, symptoms can last longer in more severe cases.
The amount of time sleeping medication stays in your system depends on its chemical half-life. Popular sleep aids like Ambien and Lunesta have half-lives from two-and-a-half to six hours. This means that only half the amount of medication will remain in your body after six hours.
Benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax have much longer half-lives, ranging from 11 to 60 hours. It can take up to four days for the medication to completely leave your system, depending on which drug you're taking.
Here are the half-lives of common sleep aids:
Rebound insomnia is difficult to manage, as it results from chemical processes in the brain. However, there are steps you can take to limit its effects and help your body transition back into natural sleep patterns.
First of all, avoid quitting sleeping pills cold turkey. If you've been taking medication for an extended period of time, it's important to consult with your doctor before discontinuing use. Your doctor can provide you with a gradual tapering schedule to help avoid sudden withdrawal effects.
It's also important to create good sleep habits. Try to avoid quick fixes, like alcohol—which may help you fall asleep, but it can also throw off your night and leave you tossing and turning.
Finally, try to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm. This means going to sleep and waking up simultaneously every day, even on weekends or holidays. Reestablishing regular patterns can help your body get back into its natural cycle of sleeping and waking.
Taking sleeping pills is like putting yourself into a trap. Rebound insomnia can make it hard to wean yourself off the medication, and you may have to take more pills than before just to get the same effect. Relying too much on sleeping medications can also trigger neurological and physical side effects.
The best way to avoid this trap is to try and address the underlying cause of insomnia. Talk to your doctor about any stressors or mental health issues that may be contributing to your sleeplessness, and take active steps to protect your rest. Gestures as small as getting a more comfortable blanket can make a big difference in your sleep quality.
It's important to remember that although medications can temporarily help you manage your symptoms, they should not be viewed as a long-term solution. Instead, focus on finding the root cause of your insomnia and developing healthy sleep habits. Using medication can lead to a negative feedback loop that's difficult to break.
With the right approach, you can transition back into your own natural sleep pattern without the help of drugs.
The gold standard of drug-free insomnia treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). CBT-I is a type of psychotherapy that helps you develop healthy sleep habits and challenge your distorted thinking around sleep.
Components of CBT-I include cognitive restructuring, sleep restriction, stimulus control, and relaxation techniques.
By incorporating these elements in tandem, CBT-I can help free you from sleeping pill dependency and get you back on your own natural rhythm.
You don’t need to spend another sleepless night worrying. If you’re ready to sleep better, longer, and without medication, start by taking our sleep quiz.