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Rebound Insomnia: Definition, Causes & Prevention | Sleep Reset

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January 9, 2023

How to Handle Rebound Insomnia After Taking Sleeping Medication

Medically reviewed by: 

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. Are you wondering if you have insomnia? Take our Insomnia Quiz to find out if you have insomnia.

What is Rebound Insomnia?

Rebound insomnia is a temporary condition that occurs when someone stops taking sleeping medication after using it for an extended period of time. Medications that may cause rebound insomnia include:

  • Benzodiazepines (ex: Valium, Xanax)
  • Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics (ex: Ambien, Lunesta)
  • Antihistamines (ex: Benadryl)

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.

How Long Does Rebound Insomnia Last?

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:

  • Ambien (2.5 to 3.1 hours)
  • Lunesta (6 hours)
  • Valium  (30-60 hours)
  • Xanax (11.2 hours)
  • Benadryl (3.4 to 9.2 hours)
  • Ativan (14 hours)

How to Limit the Effects of Rebound Insomnia

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.

The Negative Feedback Loop of Sleeping Pills

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.

Break the Sleeping Pill Cycle

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.

  • Sleep restriction helps reset your internal clock by setting a strict bedtime and wake time. It also restricts the amount of time you can spend in bed so you don't get frustrated and stare up at the ceiling when it's time to sleep.
  • Stimulus control tries to reduce associations between activities and sleeplessness. Turn your bedroom into a haven for sleep and avoid things like eating or watching TV in bed.
  • Cognitive restructuring involves challenging negative thoughts related to sleep, such as believing that you must get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night to be well-rested. Relearning the facts about your body's individual needs can help improve your overall outlook on sleep.
  • Relaxation techniques are a great way to release physical tension and let go of the stress that can keep you up at night.

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.