Sleeping pills may refer to a wide variety of medications and supplements that are designed to help you fall asleep faster or stay asleep longer. But they are often used to specifically refer to a class of drugs called nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics. This category includes popular brand names like Zoloft and Ambien, which are depressants specifically used to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders.
These sleeping pills can be habit-forming, causing chemical dependency and addiction with heavy or prolonged use. Central nervous system depressants like sleeping pills can sometimes lead to dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Sleeping pills are less likely to cause severe symptoms than other depressants like alcohol, but it is possible, especially if you quit cold turkey. Learn more about sleeping pill withdrawal and treatment options.
Sleeping pills are GABAergic, which means they interact with a chemical messenger in the brain called gamma-Aminobutyric acid. GABA regulates excitability in the brain and facilitates sleep. Sleeping pills can make GABA more effective, causing sedation and hypnosis.
When you become dependent, your brain may produce less inhibitory chemicals and more excitatory ones to counteract the drug and balance brain chemistry. When you quit, your brain chemistry will become unbalanced, causing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms can include:
Since sleeping pills are a large category of drugs, the withdrawal timeline you experience may vary, depending on the specific type of drug you take. For instance, Ambien has a half-life of about two hours, which means it will be reduced to half of its original concentration in the blood by that time. Zoloft can have a half-life that’s more than 20 hours.
The length of a drug’s half-life can be a good indication as to how long its effects will last in your system before you start to experience withdrawal. Your withdrawal timeline may also be affected by how long you’ve used the drug, the size of your usual dose, and the size of your most recent dose. However, a general withdrawal timeline for sleeping pill dependence might look like the following:
Depressants like sleeping pills are one of the few drug categories to cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Medical detox is the highest level of care available in addiction treatment. In detox, you have access to 24-hour medically managed treatment services, including medication, when it’s needed.
Not every person who seeks treatment for sleeping pill addiction will need medical detox. However, it may be necessary if you are likely to go through severe withdrawal symptoms. Detox can also help you if you have other medical needs through your withdrawal phase.
Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. (n.d.). Sleep Disorder (Sedative-Hypnotic) Drug Information. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/drugs/postmarket-drug-safety-information-patients-and-providers/sleep-disorder-sedative-hypnotic-drug-information
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, February). 8: Medical detoxification. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction/section-iii/7-medical-detoxification
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, March 6). Prescription CNS Depressants. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-cns-depressants
RxList. (2019, October 31). Ambien: Uses, Side Effects, Dosage, Interactions, Warnings. Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/ambien-drug.htm
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2004, September 16). gamma-Aminobutyric acid. Retrieved from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/gamma-Aminobutyric-acid