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Can You Overdose On Sleeping Pills?

June 7, 2022
Sleeping Pills Side Effects: Can You Overdose? | Sleep Reset
Can You Overdose On Sleeping Pills?

The Risks of Taking Sleeping Pills 

The number of Americans struggling to sleep well regularly is staggering. The most recent data from the CDC shows that nearly 70 million Americans deal with chronic sleep problems. Poor sleep and sleep deprivation is directly connected to a slew of physical, mental, and emotional health risks, including the increased risk of injury, illness, and a decrease in overall life quality.

With so much at stake, it's no surprise that many Americans seek out sleeping pills or other sleep aids to help them obtain the sleep they desperately need. The latest data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2019 found that 8% of American adults over 18 reported taking a sleep aid at least four times in the previous week. 

Deciding whether or not to take a sleeping pill or sleep aid is best done under the supervision of your healthcare provider. This article aims to educate and inform about sleeping pills, the different types, potential side effects, and signs of overdose, and provide non-pharmaceutical options available today.  

What are Sleeping Pills?

The term "sleeping pills" is often used to describe a large group of medications or supplements that help people feel drowsy and/or fall asleep. You may hear sleeping pills referred to by other names, such as:

  • Sleep aids
  • Tranquilizers
  • Hypnotics
  • Sleep medicine
  • Sedatives

Not all sleeping pills are prescribed by physicians or medical professionals. They tend to fall into three general categories:

  • Prescription sleep aids and medications
  • Over-the-Counter (OTC) medications
  • Dietary supplements

Prescription Sleep Aids 

As their name suggests, prescription sleep medication is prescribed by your doctor and is something you can pick up at a pharmacy. All prescription medications are reviewed for efficacy and approved by the Federal Drug and Food Administration (FDA) before they become available. 

There are different classes of drugs that physicians prescribe for insomnia.  

  • Z Drugs
  • Orexin receptor antagonists
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Melatonin receptor agonists
  • Antidepressants

In some cases, FDA-approved drugs used to treat other health issues are prescribed "off-label" by doctors to treat sleep issues like insomnia. It's always important to be informed of the intended use for any prescribed medication your doctor recommends.

OTC Sleep Aids & Dietary Supplements

There are medications and dietary supplements intended to help promote sleep available for purchase over-the-counter (OTC), which means you do not need a doctor's prescription to obtain them.

Typically, these medications or sleep aids are not as powerful as prescription medication. However, they can still impact your sleep and overall health and have dangerous or unwanted side effects.

Like prescription sleep aids, OTC medications and dietary supplements are grouped by chemical composition. The main ones include:

Antihistamines

Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine approved by the FDA and marketed under the brand name Benadryl. It's most commonly used to treat allergy symptoms and people sometimes use it as a sleep aid by taking it about 30 minutes before their desired sleep time.

According to the National Library of Medicine, Doxylamine is another antihistamine that can be sedated and is sometimes recommended to adults as a short-term solution for insomnia. Doxylamine can be found as an ingredient in sleep-promoting products like Unisom Sleep Tabs and others.  

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone that already occurs naturally in your body. It's secreted by the pineal gland in your brain. The secretion of melatonin is light-sensitive and directly connected to your sleep health.

When the brain signals to the body that there is light and it's daytime, melatonin production is halted, and the body increases the production of alerting hormones, like cortisol. Likewise, in the evening, as the sun sets and it becomes dark, our body increases its melatonin production, making you feel calmer and tired. 

In some cases, individuals with sleep disorders, like circadian rhythm sleep disorders or delayed sleep-wake phase disorders, are prescribed melatonin supplements to help them sleep. 

The FDA classifies melatonin as a dietary supplement and does not regulate it like other types of sleep aids.

Valerian

Valerian, an herb that's also marketed as Valerian root, may have sedative effects that make it an appealing sleep aid for people looking for a more natural option.

According to the Sleep Foundation, there is limited understanding of how valerian root generates its sedative results or how productive it is when taken as a supplement. Valerian may engage with receptors in our brain, like Gaba, serotonin, and adenosine, that impact our sleep.

Valerian or valerian root supplements may be blended with other herbs or chemicals and marketed as a sleep aid, it's always wise to read labels very carefully if you're considering supplementing with valerian. 

Who Takes Sleeping Pills? 

We know from previous research that sleeping pills and sleep aids are prevalent among American adults and that usage tends to increase with age. According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately one in three older American adults reports taking sleep medications.

This age-related trend encompasses both prescription and OTC sleep aids. The Sleep Foundation found that older adults account for approximately 35% of OTC medication use in America, and 12% of adults 65 years or older have reported taking OTC sleeping medications.

The reasons to take sleeping pills or supplements are personal to each individual. Health and lifestyle factors play a role in the decision, which is why it's always recommended that you speak with your healthcare provider before consuming medications for sleep.

Individuals struggling with sleep disorders may be prescribed sleeping pills or OTC medications in many cases. In the next section, we'll look at what factors contribute to sleep disorders and why many individuals with sleep disorders choose to take sleeping pills and other sleep aids. 

Why Do People Suffer From Sleep Disorders? 

The term "sleep disorders" is an umbrella term that encompasses several different types of disordered sleeping. The most common sleep disorders include:

  • Insomnia
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Restless Leg Syndrome
  • Narcolepsy

Individuals with insomnia have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. They sometimes wake up earlier than they'd like and often feel excessively tired or sleepy during the day.

People with insomnia or those who show symptoms of insomnia often seek out a prescription, OTC, or other supplemental sleep aids to help them rest during the night and reduce their daytime fatigue.

The root cause of chronic insomnia cannot be attributed to one factor. Instead, there are a variety of contributors to a sleep disorder like insomnia. Things that generate stress, like work demands, health concerns, and financial or housing instability, can all play a role. Likewise, triggering events, like the death of someone close to you, a move or relocation, or the dissolution of a relationship can all play a role in developing insomnia. 

Do Sleeping Pills Work? 

First and foremost, everyone reacts differently to the chemicals found in prescription sleeping pills, OTC sleep aids, and dietary supplements used to promote sleep. In general, they provide a sedative effect and help you to feel sleepy. In some cases, they're used to help someone fall asleep faster or reduce the number of instances the person wakes during the night. 

Because of the variety of sleeping pills and sleep aids available today and differing reactions to these products, it's challenging to say confidently whether sleeping pills "work." 

Limited research suggests that prescription sleep aids containing benzodiazepines may be the most useful for short-term help with insomnia. This drug was shown to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and stay asleep and boosts overall sleep efficiency.

What Are the Side Effects?

All prescription sleeping pills, OTC sleep aids, and sleep-related dietary supplements come with health risks. The severity of these risks differs by individual and health conditions. Current medication use and lifestyle choices should all be part of a discussion with a medical professional before adding sleeping pills or sleep aids to your regimen.

Common Side Effects of Sleep Aids

  • Dizziness and/or confusion: Sedating effects of sleep medication can disrupt coordination and concentration and add to the increased risk of falling.
  • Residual drowsiness: It is very common for individuals to feel groggy, disoriented or "hungover" the day after consuming prescription sleeping pills. 
  • Irregular sleep behavior: In some cases, people may behave or act in an abnormal way, including sleepwalking or talking.
  • Allergic reactions and drug interactions: Sleep aid use can result in unintended reactions due to allergies or other drug interactions.

Side effects from OTC or dietary supplements may include digestive problems, dizziness, headaches, muscle weakness and/or dry mouth. 

It's important to disclose all health conditions, drugs you consume regularly, and known allergies to your healthcare provider before taking sleeping pills or sleep aids. 

The use of sleeping pills or sleep aids for pregnant women, nursing women, and children is typically not recommended.

Can You Overdose On Sleeping Pills?

Taking certain sleeping pills can lead to dependence or abuse, so they're often only prescribed for short-term use. It's possible to overdose on sleeping pills if you do not understand the potential risks of your medication, lose track of how much you've ingested or take more than the amount recommended by your healthcare provider. 

The Mayo Clinic recommends following  these best practices for the safe use of sleeping pills: 

  • Begin with a medical evaluation
  • Read the complete medication guide
  • Take your medication at the recommended time (usually before bed)
  • Take your prescribed medication when you have the opportunity for a full night's rest
  • Keep your doctor informed of any side effects
  • Do not take more than the prescribed dose
  • Follow all guidelines when stopping a medication 

What Are Some Better Alternatives? 

The regular use of prescription or OTC sleeping pills and sleep aids puts you at increased risk for dependence on the medication to sleep. Stopping the use of sleep medication can sometimes lead to the return of insomnia in a more severe form than before, known as "rebound insomnia." 

It's best to speak with your healthcare professional if you consider stopping the use of sleep medication or sleep aids. To avoid unwanted withdrawal effects, they may need you to taper off your medications at specific dosages.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) is the gold-standard non-pharmaceutical approach for treating insomnia and insomnia symptoms, like difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep or waking up refreshed.

CBT-I addresses sleep challenges from behavioral, psychological, and even educational perspectives. The structured approach also helps people identify the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that might contribute to sleep issues. 

In 2016, leading health experts at the American College of Physicians recommended CBT-I as the first-line therapy for insomnia. CBT-I will be more effective in combating sleep issues and insomnia than taking sleeping pills and sleep aids in some patients.

Take Our Sleep Assessment! 

The great news is that the Sleep Reset program gives you strategies based on CBT-I without the need to step into a sleep clinic. It's all done from home!

You'll get a personalized sleep program designed to address your sleep concerns and help you fall asleep faster and wake up feeling refreshed. Our program uses science-backed and proven sleep methods to help you retrain your sleep without the need for sleeping pills or supplements.

With your custom sleep program, you'll also get a dedicated sleep coach, sleep tracking, our sleep app, and more. You get all the tools and support you need to get better and deeper sleep. Sleep Reset helps you learn why you're not sleeping well to stop waking up exhausted.

Take our sleep assessment today to see how Sleep Reset can help you!

Disclaimer: The information provided on this page should not be taken as medical advice and should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Always consult your physician before taking any new medication(s) or altering your current dosage.

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