Sleeping Pills and Alcohol

Alcohol and sleeping pills are depressants that affect the central nervous system. Mixing alcohol with sleeping pills amplifies their sedative effects, slowing heart rate and depressing the respiratory system. This can lead to permanent bodily damage and even death.
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According to American Sleep Association, 50 to 70 million American adults have a sleep disorder. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder among these individuals. Nearly 30 percent experience short-term insomnia and 10 percent struggle with chronic insomnia.

One of the most common treatments for insomnia and other sleep disorders is sleeping pills. Most sleeping pills are nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics, which are depressants that slow down the central nervous system.

These medications, sometimes called “Z-drugs,” include:

  • Ambien (zolpidem)
  • Lunesta (eszopiclone)
  • Sonata (zaleplon)
  • Prosom (estazolam)
  • Restoril (temazepam)
  • Sominex (diphenhydramine)

Z-drugs quiet activity in the brain, allowing individuals to fall sleep more easily. Benzodiazepines, such as Restoril, are also sometimes prescribed to treat insomnia. They work similarly to Z-drugs.

Taking sleeping pills to fall asleep can easily become routine for individuals — as customary as having a nightly cocktail.

Many individuals who use sleeping pills — both legitimately and recreationally — mix alcohol with the medications. It is often an accident the first time, as individuals who use sleeping pills on a nightly basis may not realize that mixing the two substances can cause mind altering effects and exacerbate the depressive effects each substance produces.

Some people may not know how long alcohol stays in the system. They may not realize that alcohol is still in their body when they take a sleeping pill. Others intentionally mix the alcohol with sleeping pills either for recreational purposes or to intensify their sedative effects.

The risks of mixing alcohol and central nervous system depressants, such as sleeping pills, are serious. Those who mix alcohol and sleeping pills run a high risk of overdosing, which can result in dangerously slow breathing and brain activity and can lead to death.

Combining these substances can also cause an abundance of detrimental health effects and promote the development of a poly-drug use disorder — addiction to or habitual use of more than one drug or substance.

Mixing Lunesta and alcohol can increase nervous system side effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness and difficulty concentrating. Drinking alcohol after taking Lunesta may also result in impaired thinking and judgement.

Overdosing on Sleeping Pills and Alcohol

People who mix sleeping pills and alcohol compound the risk of overdosing. Both sleeping pills and alcohol affect the central nervous system and depress vital functions.

These effects include:

  • Slowed breathing
  • Reduced brain activity
  • Slowed heartbeat
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea

While each substance produces similar effects individually after moderate use, using the two substances together can create life-threatening symptoms — especially when vital functions are slowed to dangerous levels, which can lead to health crises such as respiratory failure or cardiac arrest.

According to a 2014 study published in the journal BMJ, individuals who use sleeping pills have a four times higher chance of death than those who do not use sleeping pills.

When combining sleeping pills and alcohol, it is easy to become confused or delirious. In their confusion, individuals may unintentionally ingest more alcohol or sleeping pills, unaware of the amounts they have already used. This can lead to an overdose.

In addition, long-term use of the two substances together has been linked to brain, liver, kidney and heart damage.

Blackouts and Sleep Walking Caused by Alcohol & Sleeping Pills

According to medical research, sleeping pills and alcohol use has been linked to parasomnia, which the National Sleep Foundation defines as “the abnormal things that can happen to people while they sleep.”

Parasomnia can include sleep activities and blackouts during which individuals do not remember the behaviors they engaged in when they wake up.

According to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, alcohol interferes with falling and staying asleep. Sleep interruption from alcohol combined with the sedative effects of sleeping pills can create an intoxicated state during which an individual is consciously asleep while their body is awake. During this state, individuals may engage in risky behaviors without realizing it.

Parasomnia behaviors can be dangerous and may pose harm to the sleeping individual and others.

These behaviors include:

  • Sleep walking
  • Sleep eating
  • Sleep driving
  • Sleep talking
  • Sleep aggression
  • Sexsomnia (engaging in sex while sleeping)

Parasomnia behaviors also put people at greater risk of falling or suffering an injury during sleep-activities or even hurting others.

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Effects of Alcohol and Sleeping Pills on Mental Health

In addition to the physical health risks alcohol and sleeping pill abuse pose to individuals, the two substances can take a toll on people’s mental health as well.

According to Mayo Clinic, mixing alcohol with certain sleeping pills has been linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression. This creates a vicious cycle of substance abuse as anxiety and depression are often a precursor to sleeping problems and substance use disorders.

Sleeping pill and alcohol use also creates conditions that can lead to physical dependence and addiction. Sleeping medications such as Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata are habit forming, and the body can become physically reliant on the medications to function properly.

Alcohol also has a high physical dependence and addiction liability. According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 15.6 million Americans aged 12 or older struggle with alcohol addiction.

Using sleeping pills and alcohol together exponentially increases the likelihood of developing a poly-drug use disorder and other co-occurring mental health disorders.

Trey Dyer
Content Writer,
Trey Dyer is a writer for and an advocate for substance abuse treatment. Trey is passionate about sharing his knowledge and tales about his own family’s struggle with drug addiction to help others overcome the challenges that face substance dependent individuals and their families. Trey has a degree in journalism from American University and has been writing professionally since 2011.
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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