What Are Sleeping Pills?

Pronounced as /ˈsliː.pɪŋ ˌpɪl/

Sleeping pills are used to treat sleep problems such as insomnia, anxiety and depression. Sleep medicine works by helping the brain to relax and shut down for the night, providing a more restful night's sleep. Most sleeping pills are categorized as sedative hypnotics that are used to calm or relax patients in order to induce sleep.

An article published by the National Sleep Foundation states that one-third of people worldwide have unsatisfying sleep. As a result, many individuals are turning to sleep aids to help them get back on track with their sleep patterns.

Sleep aids can be grouped into two types: prescription sleeping pills and over-the-counter sleep medication.

Prescription Sleeping Pills

Prescription sleeping pills are used to treat severe sleep disorders and complex sleep related behaviors. Sleep medicine can only be acquired through a doctor's prescription.

A prescription sleeping pill can help improve sleep in people having a difficult time getting a full night's sleep. It can help people sleep faster, stay asleep longer and wake up feeling more rested.

Examples of prescription sleeping pills include zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta) and temazepam (Restoril).

Over-the-Counter Sleep Medication

Over-the-counter sleeping pills or OTC sleep aids, on the other hand, usually contain antihistamine or melatonin and are available without a prescription.

These sleep medications work by helping to relax the body and reduce anxiety levels, which can help users fall asleep and enjoy a good night's sleep. Common examples of OTC sleeping pills include Unisom, Nytol, and Sominex.

What Do Sleeping Pills Look Like?

Sleeping pills come in many brands and there is usually a generic version of popular sleeping pill brands used to get a good night's rest.

Prescription sleeping pills are usually found in the form of tablets, capsules or liquids. Over-the-counter sleep medications may come in various forms such as tablets, capsules, syrups and chewable gummies.

Sleep medications also come in various colors and imprints or pill identifiers. Typically, the sleeping pill imprints include the brand name and the strength (usually expressed in milligrams) of the active component. Some sleeping medication tablets have unique perforations as an added pill identifier.

What Are the Street Names of Sleeping Pills?

Sleeping pills may also be called sleep medication, sleep aids, or sleep medicine. But there are also street names associated with sleeping pills. These street names are used by recreational drug users, who misuse sleeping pills for recreational purposes.

Here are some street names of sleeping pills:

  • Sleepers
  • Zombie pills
  • Downers
  • Tranks
  • A-
  • Candy pills
  • Planks
  • French fries
  • Totem poles

What Are Sleeping Pills Used For?

As the name suggests, you may have already guessed that sleeping pills are used to help people fall asleep. Below are some of the more specific ways sleep medication is used.

Sleeping Pills common uses

Sleep Disorders

Sleep aids are used for the management and pharmacological treatment of sleep disorders.

To be more specific, a healthcare provider may recommend a sleep aid to treat sleep problems such as chronic insomnia, waking up in the middle of the night, and difficulty in staying asleep. Sleeping medications can also be used for treating sleeplessness.

Difficulty in sleeping is attributed to several factors such as poor sleeping habits, stress, depression, medications, jet lag, and disease.

Mental Health Conditions

One of the most common symptoms of having a mental health disorder is insomnia. People struggling with agitation, anxiety, or depression may find themselves having trouble sleeping.

To treat insomnia caused by these mental health conditions, doctors may advise you to take a sleeping pill. It's important, however, to consult a healthcare provider or talk to your doctor before taking sleeping pills if you have a mental condition.

How Do Sleeping Pills Work?

The two types of sleep aids work differently but give the same result which is the relaxation of the brain and body.

Most prescription sleep medicine contains a nonbenzodiazepine active ingredient which binds to the GABA receptor site of the brain. Once bound to the receptor site, it stimulates the secretion of GABA neurotransmitters which opens chloride channels to saturate the neurons with chloride ions. This reaction slows down brain activity and induces muscle relaxation.

In contrast, the OTC sleep aids contain antihistamine as an active ingredient that works on the histamine receptor site of the brain. The drowsing effect happens when the antihistamine in the sleep aid blocks the histamine from binding in the receptor site.

An OTC sleep medication like Tylenol PM has  Acetaminophen (a pain reliever) to further enhance the relaxing effect.

How Strong Are Sleeping Pills?                                                                 

The strength of sleeping medication depends on the active component and dosage taken by the patient. Most sleeping pills are classified by the DEA under Schedule IV controlled substances.

Here is a summary chart showing the strengths of various types.

DrugMechanismDuration of Effects
DiphenhydramineWorks on the histamine receptor sites of the brain to induce sleepiness4-6 hours
Selective GABA Medicines· Ambien· Ambien CR· Lunesta· SonataWorks on the GABA receptor site in the brain6-8 hours
Sleep-wake cycle Modifiers· RozeremActivates the melatonin receptor sites in the brain which controls the body’s sleep-wake patterns4-6 hours
Benzodiazepines· Ativan· Halcion· Restoril· Valium· XanaxBinds and works on the GABA receptor site of the brain4 to more than 12 hours
Tricyclic Antidepressants· Adapin· Aventyl· Elavil· Pamelor· Sinequan· TrazodoneBinds to various multiple brain receptor sites including acetylcholineNot stated

How Long Do Sleeping Pills Stay in Your System? Blood, Urine, Saliva, Hair

The time it takes for sleep medications to flush out from your system depends on the type of drug taken. Other factors like the amount taken, frequency, and metabolism rate of the person also affect if the drug stays in your system longer.

Below is an average estimate of how long these drugs stay in your system.

  • Blood test: 1 to 6 days
  • Urine test: 5 to 7 days
  • Saliva test: up to 3 days
  • Hair test: up to 90 days

What Are the Side Effects of Sleeping Pills?

Taking sleeping pills slows down the neural activity of the brain, induces muscle relaxation and slower breathing. This effect is achieved when these medications bind to the GABA receptor site and stimulate the production of GABA neurotransmitters.

Aside from inducing sleepiness and relaxation, there are other short-term and long-term side effects of sleeping pills. These side effects can manifest differently depending on the type of sleeping pill used and how much is taken.

Sleeping Pills side effects

Short-term side effects:

  • State of lightheadedness
  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Inflammation feeling in the arms, hand, feet and legs
  • An abnormal change in appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Allergic reaction including blurred vision, chest pain, difficulty breathing

Long-term side effects:

  • Uncontrollable body shaking
  • Gradual memory loss
  • Heartburn
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Sleep walking
  • Sleep eating and sleep driving (eating or driving while not fully awake)
  • Nightmares

How Do You Get Addicted to Sleeping Pills?

Just like other medications, addiction to sleeping pills can occur when you take sleeping pills excessively and become reliant on the effects of the medication.

It is important to note that sleep medications can be habit forming and have a higher chance of resulting in an addiction due to their method of action. This means you continue to take sleeping pills even if you don't necessarily need it anymore to stay asleep.

For instance, taking Z drugs (Zopiclone, eszopiclone, zaleplon and zolpidem) for insomnia treatments have been shown to be habit forming.

Addiction to these prescription drugs happens due to tolerance and drug dependence. According to the American Family Physician, sleeping meds should only be taken for a few days and can be dangerous if abused.

Some signs which indicate you have been dependent include:

  • You take a sleeping pill even after your prescription is finished
  • You take more than the dose prescribed
  • Drug cravings
  • Seeing more than one medical personnel for refills
  • You continue taking the pills even after severe side effects
Sleeping Pills addiction

Why Are Sleeping Pills Dangerous?

You might be wondering whether it's okay to take sleeping aids. Are sleeping pills safe? While sleep medications are not as addictive as other illicit drugs, they still can cause a person to develop tolerance and dependence over time due to their habit-forming nature.

Addiction to sleeping pills can be dangerous especially if the user combines sleep aids with other substances like alcohol, opioids, and illicit drugs. Recreational drug users do this to amplify the side effects of sleeping pills The deadly combination can cause deadly side effects. This may cause a person to stop breathing, have difficulty swallowing and fall into a coma.

Sleeping aids may not be advisable for older adults. Older adults are at greater risk of experiencing side effects and can become more dangerous if combined with other drugs.

Aside from older adults, people with low blood pressure, kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Some other dangerous side effects of sleeping pills include:

  • Reduced alertness, coordination and reaction time that can increase the risk of accidents or injuries
  • Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and hallucinations
  • Risk of death due to overdose
  • Contraindications with other medications
  • Allergic reactions

Self-medicating using sleeping pills is not recommended. Even side effects like an allergic reaction can be life threatening. Therefore, it is important to talk to your doctor and get a medical exam from a healthcare provider before taking any sleeping pills.

Doctors or your family physicians can give you the best advice on which type of sleep aid is right for you and you can be assured that you'll be prescribed appropriate drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration. They can also monitor your health to minimize risks and side effects associated with using sleep medication.

What Causes a Sleeping Pill Overdose?

Overdose is just one of the extreme side effects of abusing sleeping pills. There are several reasons for sleeping overdose. One major factor is the easy availability of these drugs, particularly the OTC types which people often use whenever they experience a sleep disorder.

A person can accidentally take too much of the medication when trying to catch up on lost sleep or taking more than the recommended dose.

Overdose can also occur when a user takes a counterfeit sleep medication. Illicit drug manufacturers often mix chemicals, fillers, and other dangerous substances to their products and market them as authentic. You should avoid sleeping pills from unreliable sources and instead buy from a licensed pharmacy to avoid fatal side effects.

It is also important to note that sleeping medications can become even more dangerous when combined with other recreational drugs like opioids, alcohol or illicit drugs. This can lead to dangerous side effects like slowing down the central nervous system and causing a person to stop breathing or fall into a coma.

In conclusion, sleeping pills are effective for treating short-term sleeping problems but can be dangerous if taken in excess or if misused.

What Are the Signs of an Overdose?

When someone is suffering from an overdose, the following signs and symptoms are likely to occur:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Impaired reflexes
  • Abdominal problems such as constipation and diarrhea
  • Respiratory dysfunction

How Do You Treat a Sleeping Pill Overdose?

Calling a doctor immediately is the best way to treat a sleeping pill overdose. The first responders will be able to assess and diagnose the symptoms in order to provide proper treatment.

If you suspect that someone has overdosed on sleeping meds, keep them under close watch and do not leave them alone. You should also try to identify the type of medication they have taken to help the medical team determine the right course of action.

Sleeping Pills overdose

What Are the Withdrawal Symptoms from Sleeping Pills?

Withdrawal from using these medications can result in varying physical and mental side effects or symptoms. One of the more common is rebound insomnia. Rebound insomnia takes place when you stop taking sleeping pills or insomnia treatments which causes your sleep disorder to come back worse than before taking the medicine.

Other withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Tremors
  • Difficulty in sleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Cravings for the drug
  • Irritability
  • Intense sweating
  • Depression
  • Depressed heartbeat

How Can You Treat Sleeping Pill Addiction?

Abuse of these medications is treatable. Treatment must be done step-by-step for complete recovery. You can consider the following steps for your treatment process:

  • Consult your medical personnel or clinician for a comprehensive guideline in order to recover from drug dependence.
  • Reward System: A contingency management plan where sets of rewards will be given to the patients who avoid using this substance.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): A treatment process seeking to determine the variables causing drug abuse, risk reduction methods, and enhancing coping mechanisms.
  • Recovery Group: A community-based plan which allows the patient to meet other victims and have a sharing about their experiences and success.