Are Sleep Medications like Ambien Addictive? | AspenRidge Recovery


Did you know that 1 out of 3 people experiences insomnia sometime in their life?

Insomnia is a common phenomenon that affects many Americans. Of those that toss and turn at turn, many will seek medical help from a doctor. This is where sleep aids come into the picture. To treat insomnia, many doctors prescribe medications for sleeping, like Ambien.

Sleep aids are designed for short-term use. They are meant to help patients go to sleep and feel relaxed. Although effective, they aren’t supposed to be used for long periods of time or for continued use.

Unfortunately, once some patients start using sleeping pills, they begin to rely on them on a regular basis. This can lead to abuse, and can become a sleeping pill addiction. While sleeping pill addictions are not usually life-threatening, they can be difficult to kick.

Long-term use of sleep aids can change your brain chemistry and your hormone levels. Because of this reason, weaning off of sleeping pills can be difficult. Some people may need professional medical help to get sober or to become independent of the sleep aids.

Causes of Insomnia

There are many medical and psychiatric factors that can lead to insomnia. Some people are afflicted by only one factor, whereas others are afflicted by a combination of different factors. Finding the underlying root cause of insomnia can be quite difficult.

Medical Causes of Insomnia

Insomnia has many underlying causes. Some causes mild insomnia while others cause a much more severe form of the condition. Popular medical causes include:

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Chronic pain
  • Endocrine-related conditions, like hyperthyroidism
  • Gastrointestinal conditions, like acid reflux
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Lower back pain
  • Nasal allergies
  • Neurological conditions
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Sleep apnea

If any of the above medical conditions are causing insomnia, it’s important to treat the underlying condition first. This should improve your quality of sleep and your ability to sleep.


Psychiatric Causes of Insomnia

In other situations, one’s mental or psychiatric health may be the cause of insomnia. Popular psychiatric causes of insomnia include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression

A change in your mood, hormones or brain chemistry can lead to both psychiatric issues and insomnia. Some of these conditions play off of one another. For example, depression can worsen insomnia, and constant insomnia can lead to further depression.

Popular Types of Sleep Medications

Some sleep medications are benzodiazepines, while others are sleep-inducing antidepressants. Some other medications are also selective gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) medications. All affect the brain differently to induce sleep.

There are many sleeping pills available. Some need to be prescribed, whereas others are over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Popular sleeping medications include:

  • Adapin, or doxeprin
  • Ambien
  • Ativan, or lorazepam
  • Dalmane, or flurazepam
  • Imovane, or zopiclone
  • Klonopin, or clonazepam
  • Lunesta
  • Melatonin
  • Ramelteon
  • Restoril, or temazepam
  • Rohypnol, or flunitrazepam
  • Valium, or diazepam
  • Xanax, or alprazolam
  • Zaleplon

Most of these medications treat only insomnia. Doctors only prescribe them under close supervision.

How Popular Sleep Aids, like Ambien, Work

While there are various types of sleep medications, all of them induce sleep by affecting the brain in one way or another. Some induce a sense of drowsiness, while others simply have a sedating side effect.

Selective Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Pills

Some of the most common sleep aids are selective gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) medications. These include popular medications like Ambien or Lunesta, and have a rapid effect. Upon taking the medication, patients feel drowsy and sleepy within a short time frame.

The medications are metabolized in the body while a person sleeps. In most cases, the medications will be fully metabolized once the patient wakes up. There will no longer be any trace of the drug in their body, so they are less likely to experience any unwanted side effects.

These sleep aids attach to the GABA receptors in the brain. The GABA receptors are responsible for keeping a person relaxed or alert. Upon attaching to the GABA receptors, they induce sleep. Surprisingly, selective GABA pills only work on certain GABA receptors in the brain. As a result, they are safer than benzodiazepines and have a lower addictive potential.

Common Side Effects

There are some unique side effects to taking these medications for sleeping. Most side effects are quite mild and won’t have a lasting effect. Common side effects include:

  • Changes to one’s behavior before sleeping
  • Hallucinations
  • Memory disturbances

Some people claim that sleep meds like Ambien can cause “confusional arousal”, otherwise known as sleepwalking. However, only a small percentage of people who take Ambien experience this side effect.


Benzodiazepines are some of the oldest sleep medications prescribed by doctors. They include drugs like Xanax, Valium and Ativan.

These types of medications for sleeping stimulate the GABA receptors in the brain to induce sleep. The drug also helps patients relax. Unlike drugs, like Ambien, benzodiazepines can attach to all GABA receptors in the brain. As a result, they have a much higher addictive potential.

Those who use benzodiazepines to sleep can develop a tolerance to the drug. This means that they will need to up their dosage to get the same effects and to sleep.

These sleep aids should be not be used long-term. Most doctors recommend only taking the sleeping pills for a couple of days at most.

Common Side Effects

Since Benzodiazepines affect almost all GABA receptors, they place a larger strain on the brain. They can cause side effects like:

  • Euphoria
  • Poor memory
  • Relaxed muscles

The sense of euphoria that can be achieved from taking benzodiazepines is troubling. This is a primary factor that drives abuse and addiction.

Sleep-Wake Cycle Modifiers

Newer prescription sleep medications like Ramelteon are sleep-wake cycle modifiers. They affect the body’s circadian rhythm, which is controlled by the hypothalamus.

In short, they only affect one area of the brain. Since they have a limited effect on the brain, these sleeping pills come with little to no side effects. They are also less likely to cause a physical dependence.  However, it can still cause a psychological dependence.

These sleeping pills attach specifically to the melatonin receptors in the brain to induce sleep. When taken for extended periods of time, this sleep pill can change hormone levels within the body.

In men, this can reduce their sex drive. In women, this can make it difficult for them to get pregnant.

Tricyclic Antidepressants

Some doctors prescribe tricyclic antidepressants (TCA), like Adapin, to treat insomnia. These medications are also used to treat chronic pain and depression. This means that they’re great for patients who struggle with psychiatric causes that have led to insomnia.

Common Side Effects

Although TCAs can do wonders in treating several conditions at once, they come with some pretty strong side effects. Common side effects to expect include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulties urinating
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth

To avoid these side effects, patients are prescribed low doses of the drug.

Addictive Potential of Sleep Meds, like Ambien

While some sleep medications have a higher addictive potential than others, patients can become dependent on all sleep aids. This doesn’t mean that patients will experience withdrawal symptoms directly from the chemicals in sleeping pills.

Instead, it means that patients may rely on the drug to sleep. They can develop a psychological dependence to the drug. This means that they begin to depend on the drug mentally.

Some drugs have a much higher addictive potential than others. For example, benzodiazepines are more potent than selective gamma-aminobutyric acid medications. This is because they stimulate and activate more GABA receptors in the brain.

Before taking any sleep aids, speak to a doctor about your concerns. Make sure that the benefits of taking the medications outweigh the risk of dependence. It’s important to know what’s on the line.

When a higher dose is taken, the higher the likelihood it is of becoming dependent. The same goes for those who have taken sleeping pills for extended periods of time. Most sleeping pills are meant for temporary or short-term use only.

Signs of an Addiction to Sleeping Pills

Many addicts are high functioning and can hide their addiction to sleep medications. Still, those who pay attention may notice some minor behavioral changes. Common signs of an addiction include:

  • Becoming more and more isolated from friends and family in favor of drugs
  • Dealing with an impaired memory or an increasing inability to focus
  • Experiencing cravings for the sleep meds
  • Having to refill prescriptions more often than normal
  • Moving uncoordinatedly, as if one was drunk or under the influence
  • Participating in dangerous activities without having any memory of them later
  • Slurring of the speech on a regular basis
  • Spending an excessive amount of money
  • Taking larger doses and more frequent doses than prescribed

Some signs of addiction can be easy to miss. Many people who are addicted will often be in denial. Those who are concerned about their situation should take our addiction quiz.

Withdrawal Symptoms of Sleep Med Abuse

Most sleeping pills are not prescribed for long-term use. Those who end up taking the pills over an extended period of time may experience withdrawal symptoms when quitting. While the symptoms are not life-threatening, they can be difficult to manage. Most addiction experts recommend getting professional medical detoxification.

The detoxification should lessen the severity of the symptoms, and speed up recovery. It makes the entire process a lot more tolerable.

Depending on the type of drug prescribed, it’s not unusual to experience withdrawal symptoms. Common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Profuse sweating
  • Rebound insomnia
  • Seizures
  • Shivering
  • Suicidal thoughts

Rebound insomnia is a common phenomenon. When quitting, many addicts find that they have an increasingly difficult time trying to sleep.

Withdrawal symptoms can first appear a few hours after quitting. Surprisingly, it can also be delayed. At times, withdrawal symptoms emerge weeks after the sleep aids are discontinued.

Common Interventions for Sleep Med Abuse

Those who are addicted to sleep aid medications should seek professional help from a recovery center. A combination of different therapies and medical detoxes can help patients become independent of sleeping aids. The program can also help identify the underlying causes of insomnia.

The most common types of interventions recommended for sleeping pill addictions include:

  • Counselling and therapy to deal with the psychological aspects of addiction
  • Gradual dose reduction, or tapering, which can be achieved with or without the use of substitute medications
  • Medical detoxification, which uses other medications to lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms

The recommended treatment length and type will vary depending on the type of pills used. It will also depend on the dosage taken and the length of time that the sleep aids were used for.

Constant medical supervision will ensure that the treatments are working for you. Try different types of substitute medications to see what works best for your body.

A Better Night’s Sleep without Addiction

Don’t let insomnia get the best of you. There are plenty of ways to treat it.

The key is knowing how to deal with it appropriately and properly. Use sleeping pills as prescribed by the doctors. Before filling your prescriptions, make sure that the benefits outweigh the risk. Schedule follow up appointments to confirm that you’re on the right track, and attempt to treat the underlying causes. Slowly but surely, you should start to get better and be able to get a good night’s sleep without help from medications for sleeping.

Even if you take all precautions available, you might still develop a dependence to sleep aids. It might be that the dosage isn’t right for you, or that your body reacts differently to the medications.

If you’ve become addicted or dependent on sleep medications, talk to one of our counsellors today. Take a look at the various programs that we have to offer, and what we can do for you. Not only can we help you become sober, but we can also help identify the underlying causes to your insomnia.

With our help, you can life a more successful and healthy lifestyle. You don’t have to be dependent on sleep medications to get a good night’s sleep.

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