Is a Sleeping Pill Habit Always a Bad Thing?
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Is a Sleeping Pill Habit Always a Bad Thing?


is addiction to sleeping pills always a bad thing

This post was originally published on March 9, 2015.

Sixty million Americans suffer from some form of insomnia, whether it’s tossing and turning endlessly to fall asleep, waking up multiple times during the night, or waking up once with an inability to knock back out. And it’s no small problem. Sleep deprivation not only makes you highly ineffective at work, it threatens your ability to drive, to reason, and to keep your temper, while potentially causing depression and anxiety. When it continues night after night, you’re stuck in vicious cycle that wrecks havoc on your body and mind.

The Medicinal Alternative to Counting Sheep

So it’s not surprising that four percent of adults in the US reach for a pill to get some shut-eye. I get it. I’ve been plagued with insomnia since high school, waking up around four in the morning totally alert and incapable of falling back asleep only to turn narcoleptic by 9 am, which is a bad deal when you have a 9-5 job. The worst was when I worked in restaurant kitchens and had no set schedule—sometimes I worked evenings and got off at midnight, other days I pried myself out of bed at 7 am to mix yeast, flour, water and salt together so the artisan breads got a good rise first thing in the morning.

This schedule absolutely fried me. I performed poorly at work, was constantly spaced out and messed up tons of recipes, throwing out over-leavened cakes and under-whipped meringue and getting yelled at the whole time. Plus I was severely cranky, and when anyone got into my way in the tight walk-in refrigerator or altered my oven temperature or snapped at me, I wanted to smash them over the head with a sheet tray.

I don’t recommend the lifestyle.

Sedative 101

The question remains as to whether popping Ambien, Ativan, or Klonopin to help you knock out if you have incapacitating chronic insomnia is a good idea. Ambien is a sedative, also known as a hypnotic drug, while Ativan and Klonopopin fall into the benzo category, like Valium and Xanax. Both classes of prescription drugs are scientifically proven to be addictive, but taken in small doses and as doctor-prescribed they can certainly help an insomniac get some much-needed shut eye.

While controlled studies haven’t been performed on the outcomes of perpetual use of sedatives in patients who take them as prescribed (retrospective studies have been done, which collect data from individuals who used sedatives in the past), many doctors and experts don’t see any harm in doing so if the person has no history of addiction and no serious side effects. Long-term use is a different story, and many times there are other issues below the surface to address, like anxiety, depression or maybe even just a bad caffeine habit. If the pills work—and you experience little grogginess or side effects—some doctors will say it’s fine. Of course, even in a non-addict, the body will often build up a tolerance to the medication in just a few weeks, therefore requiring an increase in dosage, and this can become dangerous.

Snooze Aid Pros and Cons

What’s the lesser of two evils here? An endless cycle of sleepless nights and the inability to function that ensues, or a daily pill-popping habit?

It seems to depend on your history, whether you’re prone to addiction or have an addictive past, and whether you like to follow directions. If you take more than prescribed, chase the pills down with booze or drive while doped up, you’re liable to have some problems, problems that could be fatal. When the use of sleeping pills escalates to this kind of exigency, obviously it’s best to just drink a glass of warm milk or some Nighty Night tea before bed. Valerian root can really work wonders.

Of course, there are the non-addictive sleeping drugs, and I have experience taking many of these. Trazadone is an antidepressant that’ll knock me out faster than Ativan, and though it’s not a benzo, it makes me so groggy the next day I can’t function at all. My eyes puff up so dramatically people think I’m hungover or spent the whole night sobbing over some dude, so Trazadone is scratched off my list. Seroquel is a non-addictive antipsychotic prescribed for sleep, but that turned me into a super bitch the next day—extremely agitated and irritable and a complete liability on the road, so I had to nix that immediately. Melatonin, the over-the-counter hormone that the body naturally produces to engender sleep, helped me slumber for eight uninterrupted hours, but when I take it on a continual basis, I suffer from horrible bouts of chronic depression.

Shut Eyed Caution

The best cure for my insomnia is binging on sugar, but that isn’t exactly good for my pancreas, blood sugar stability or waistline. I try to avoid it, although I’m not always successful.

If you’re a non-addictive and psychologically balanced individual with just an insomnia problem, maybe it is okay to take the pill—as prescribed—every day. But if the drugs start plaguing you with negative consequences, a tolerance that requires unsafe dosage, or if you don’t follow doctor’s orders to a T, then you’re not in safe territory.

As for us addicts, benzos and sedatives just aren’t a good idea. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, of course, and everyone should consult with their doctor for specific medical advice—there are always exceptions or medical conditions like severe mania or psychosis, or even epilepsy, that may warrant the use of stronger sleep-aids or sedatives. But more often than not, taking these pills can spiral you down into a serious problem.

I’d definitely down a dozen doughnuts to knock out before jeopardizing my sobriety.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.