It is true that most of us will experience sleep problems at one time or another. The question is, when does it become an actual disorder? Sleep problems can stem from stress, travel, illness, or something temporary with the ability to interrupt sleep patterns. When sleep problems develop into a nightly occurrence and begin to affect your daily life, this can be a sign of a sleep disorder. With advances in modern medicine, sleep disorders can be treated with a range of medications.

An estimated 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder. Signs of this include daytime sleepiness and dysfunction, which can result in serious consequences. Sleeplessness can cause you to fall asleep at the wheel or not perform your work functions properly. This can mean a loss of income due to low productivity or losing your job from not meeting expectations. Some common sleep disorders are insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and narcolepsy. For this reason, many have turned to sedative drugs for relief.

Sleep is to human functioning as fuel is to a vehicle. It is impossible to move forward without one or the other. In the 1860s, as a means to combat these problems, drugs like barbiturates were produced to help combat the worst symptoms of sleeplessness. While they were effective, their side effects began to cause problems for those who consumed them. Later on, in the 1970s, benzodiazepines were brought in to help overcome the adverse effects of barbiturates. Again, these drugs were beneficial and became the most widely prescribed drug in the world by the late 1970s.

Benzodiazepines are still commonly used, but research in addiction sciences has yielded the high potential for addiction. Benzos are commonly used for their intoxicating effects but possess the same risks as barbiturates due to a high chance of overdose and dependence. A newer class of drugs known as Z-drugs have emerged, boasting the effects of sleep with fewer downsides. Z-drugs have risen sharply in popularity over the past few decades. They do help immensely for restful sleep, but unfortunately, carry some of the same risks and benzos and barbiturates.

If you are taking sedatives or have talked to a doctor about sedatives for a sleep disorder, it is important to learn more about sedative addiction and symptoms. It is important to be aware of the warning signs, and how addiction can be treated.

What Are Sedatives?

Sedatives are a class of psychoactive drugs that cause sedation, hypnotic effects, and relaxation. Some of the more popular drugs include Ambien, Lunesta, and Zaleplon. The drugs referred to as Z-drugs are in a much larger class known as central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and they work by calming down the person who ingests the drug. It does so by reducing excitability in the nervous system. Other depressants such as barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and alcohol also fall into this class.

All depressants have similar effects in the brain. Excitability in the nervous system is regulated by the neurotransmitter gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) and its receptor in the brain. 

Upon activation, it is responsible for controlling the nervous system excitability responsible for muscle tone. It creates calm when it is time to rest. Z-drugs focus on a specific point in the GABA receptor that increases the efficiency of the naturally occurring GABA neurotransmitter.

When abused or used with other drugs, Z-drugs hold the potential to create intoxicating effects and provide a euphoric sense of relaxation. Over time, your brain will become dependent on the drug for normal functions which causes a tolerance. These factors alone give Z-drugs a high liability and reason to ask, do the benefits outweigh the risks? They are often prescribed for short-term use because long-term use can create many problems.

What Are the Signs of Sedative Addiction?

What makes sedative addiction so dangerous is how necessary functions like sleep are. It is easy to fall into a sedative addiction to relieve sleep or anxiety disorders. Many of those who consume drugs fail to recognize how addictive they are because a doctor prescribed it. This is not true. Any drug that is abused can hold a risk of addiction, and sedatives are no different. When you’ve become addicted to sedatives, your limbic system has become altered to the point that it causes intense cravings and impulses to continuously use the drug.

Doctors will prescribe a specific amount of the drug meant to be taken over a few nights. This could last up to a few weeks. Drug use after this point should be halted unless a doctor says otherwise. If you start using the drugs for too long or in higher doses than intended, a tolerance may begin to develop What this means is you will require higher doses to achieve the same effects from when you began using.

Once tolerance has been established, the next step would be a chemical dependency. When the brain becomes accustomed to foreign chemicals, your body will require the drug to maintain a sense of normalcy or to avoid withdrawal symptoms. If you attempt to cut back or quit and fail to do so, this could indicate a chemical dependence.

If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, there are outward signs associated with sedative addiction that include:

  • Intoxication similar to alcohol
  • Strange sleep patterns
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of coordination
  • Lying about drug use
  • Hiding drugs around the house
  • Mixing sedatives with alcohol or other drugs

What Is Involved in Sedative Addiction Treatment?

Sedatives can cause withdrawal symptoms that can potentially lead to death. Some of the worst withdrawal symptoms from sedatives include seizures and delirium tremens (DTs). Without proper care from medical professionals, these symptoms can become serious. Doctors and addiction specialists recommend that you never stop using drugs without supervision. Due to this, the first portion of care in the continuum of treatment begins with medical detoxification.

Medical detox will offer 24-hour, around-the-clock supervision and access to medical professionals. This is the most intensive part of the process and will last anywhere from three to seven days. This is dependent on the severity of the addiction. Medical staff may administer medication to taper safely off the drug(s). Sedative addiction must be tapered off slowly, and medication-based detox will allow the process to be as comfortable as possible. The team will also determine a medical plan that determines the steps beyond detox.

Upon completion of detox, the client will be moved into the next level of care that is appropriate for the person’s situation. In most cases for sedative addiction, because of its dangerous characteristics, the client will be placed in a residential treatment facility. The person’s time in that facility could last anywhere from 30 days to 90 days.

Statistics show that the longer an individual remains in treatment, the higher their success rate will be long-term. Residential treatment is usually a customized program that helps the person in recovery to move toward long-term sobriety. The client will attend therapies that make a lasting change in active addiction. The client also will learn about their triggers, risky situations, and how to cope with these on the outside of the comfort of treatment.

Sedative Abuse Statistics

  • About 9 million people took sleep aids in 2013.
  • Despite being riskier in older patients, more than 33% of sleeping pills are prescribed for older adults.
  • Overdose deaths involving sedatives are increasing, with benzodiazepines accounting for 10,684 deaths in 2016.
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