In today’s fast-paced society, quality sleep is a rare gem. Many people have trouble sleeping and turn to over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids for help. When used sparingly, these medications can be a godsend for people struggling with insomnia. But when overused or combined with other drugs and alcohol, serious side effects, physical dependence and overdose can occur.
In a national health survey published by The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 4% of adults aged 20 and older reported over-using prescription sleep aids in the last 30 days.1
Historically, there have been several different types of sedatives and hypnotics used to manage insomnia including:2,3
- Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics (brand names: Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, Rozerem).
- Benzodiazepines (brand names: Klonopin, Ativan, Xanax, Restoril; increasingly rarely used for this indication).
- Barbiturates (brand names: Nembutal; very rarely used).
- Over-the-counter sleep aids such as antihistamines (Benadryl, Unisom).
- The antidepressant trazodone (off-label indication).
It is advised to never mix sleeping pills with alcohol because the interaction can be dangerous and even potentially fatal. Even small amounts of alcohol combined with sleeping pills can cause dizziness, confusion and fainting. Alcohol use can actually cause or exacerbate existing insomnia, which defeats the purpose of sleeping pills.2,3,4
Side Effects and Risks of Mixing Sleeping Pills and Alcohol
Because there are so many different types of sleeping pills, their exact interactions with alcohol may differ slightly, some being more dangerous than others. But in general, it is advised to never mix sedatives or hypnotics with alcohol. Combining sleeping pills with alcohol can increase the sedating effects of both, thus seriously increasing the risk of overdose.2,3,4
Drinking even one alcoholic beverage in combination with sleeping pills can be dangerous. Many sleeping pills are known to cause sleepwalking and memory loss. People have reported engaging in behaviors such as eating, talking on the phone, and sometimes even driving a motor vehicle with no recollection after taking a sleeping pill. Combined with alcohol, the risks of blackout periods are even higher.4,5
The side effects of mixing alcohol and sleeping pills include:3,4,5
- Impaired motor control.
- Memory problems.
- Slowed heart rate.
- Slowed or difficulty breathing.
- Lowered blood pressure.
- Unusual behavior.
- Increased risk of overdose.
Treatment for Addiction to Sleeping Pills and Alcohol
Treatment is available for those suffering from addiction to sleeping pills and alcohol. Because both alcohol and sleeping pills can create physical dependence, serious withdrawal symptoms may occur. It is important that people trying to quit do so under the care of physician.
In general, the best way to stop taking sleeping pills is to gradually decrease the dose under a doctor’s guidance. This helps minimize withdrawal symptoms and lessens the chance of relapse.6
It is important to seek treatment for both addictions simultaneously so that treatment approaches do not negate each other. When you stop using sleeping pills and alcohol, rebound insomnia will occur. In cases of alcoholism, sedatives and hypnotics are sometimes used to help with sleep problems. However, in cases of co-occurring addiction to alcohol and sleeping pills, this may not be an option.6,7
Fortunately, there are several non-pharmacological treatment options that can help with rebound insomnia, including:7
- Relaxation therapy.
- Sleep hygiene education.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Stimulus control.
- Sleep restriction.
Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment
Treatment for poly-substance addiction is available on both an inpatient and outpatient basis.
Inpatient treatment takes places in a residential facility. Patients will remain in a therapeutic community 24/7 for a period of time, typically ranging from 30 to 90 days. They will have limited access to the outside world so that they can focus exclusively on recovery and minimize the chance of relapse due to external triggers.
Outpatient treatment is also effective and is a popular choice for those wishing to maintain personal and professional duties. Treatment protocols are usually similar to inpatient rehabilitation, but are less intensive. Outpatient treatment typically amounts to 20 hours per week.8
Whether on an inpatient or outpatient basis, treatment for alcohol and sleeping pill addiction typically consists of some combination of:6,7,8
- Medically assisted detox.
- Behavioral interventions.
- Rebound insomnia treatment.
- Mental health evaluation.
- Individual counseling and therapy.
- Group counseling and therapy.
- Family counseling and therapy.
- Motivational interviewing and incentives.
- 12-step programs/support groups.
- Recreational therapy/art therapy.
- Co-occurring disorder treatment.
- Relapse prevention.
If you’re concerned that the co-abuse of alcohol and sleeping pills is impacting your health or that of someone close to you substance abuse treatment programs can help. Call us to speak with a treatment support advisor about your recovery options.
- Chong,Y., Fryar, C., & Gu, Q. (2013). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Prescription Sleep Aid Use Among Adults: United States, 2005–2010.
- MedlinePlus. (2012). Medicines for Sleep.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Commonly Abused Drugs: Prescription Sedatives.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines.
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2015). Drug Safety and Availability.
- PubMed Health: U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2013). Using medication: What can help when trying to stop taking sleeping pills and sedatives?
- Arnedt, J., Conroy, D., & Brower, K. (2010). Treatment Options for Sleep Disturbances During Alcohol Recovery. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 26(4): 41–54.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). DrugFacts: Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.