Combining sleeping pills and alcohol can be life-threatening. An increasing number of Americans are relying on sleep medications that when mixed with alcohol, can cause harmful and dangerous side effects.
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Sleep Aids and Prescription Sedatives
According to some estimates, nearly half of all Americans have suffered from symptoms of insomnia, which include difficulty falling or remaining asleep or getting sufficient rest. Many of these Americans turn to either OTC or prescription sleep aids for help with their sleeping. The following statistics suggest that the use of sleep aids is indeed ubiquitous:
- 10-20% of Americans use over-the-counter sleep aids each year, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
- As many as 30% of American women reported using some kind of sleep aid each week.
- 4% of Americans were prescribed a sedative or hypnotic medication for sleep within the past month, and prescriptions for sleep aids have increased three-fold among Americans between the ages of 18-24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Even when taken infrequently and as directed, these sleep aids can have unpleasant and potentially severe side effects. Also, according to the CDC, a shockingly large number of Americans reported misusing these pills, taking them far longer than intended or not as directed by a physician.
Moreover, research from Brown University and the University of Rhode Island revealed that 60% of people using prescription drugs that should not be taken with alcohol (including sleep aids) still drink.
Combining sleeping pills and alcohol is, in fact, a common form of misuse, according to research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
Recently, the number of emergency department related to zolpidem, the active ingredient in Ambien and a number of other sleep aids, nearly doubled between the years 2005-2010. Referred to as “overmedication” – using too much zolpidem or taking it in combination with alcohol and other drugs – this misuse of substances was reported as the main cause of this dramatic increase.
Also, 14% of all zolpidem-related emergency department visits involved alcohol in combination with zolpidem.
The Dangers of Combining Alcohol and Sleeping Pills
The dangers of mixing alcohol and sleeping pills or other prescription or illicit drugs are not to be minimized – a study published in the American Journal of Therapeutics found that using alcohol in conjunction with zolpidem doubled a person’s chances of being admitted into an intensive care unit.
Alcohol and sleep medications each affect the central nervous system and influence the same GABA receptors in the brain, so when used together, they can exponentially intensify possible side effects. Among the most dangerous is respiratory depression. Sedative and hypnotic medications for sleep suppress breathing, and in conjunction with alcohol, this effect can be intensified and result in cessation of breathing and cardiac arrest.
In addition to decreased or labored breathing, alcohol mixed with sleep aids can be related to occurrences of unusual and possibly life-threatening behavior. For instance, zolpidem medications like Ambien have been associated with episodes of sleepwalking and “sleep-driving” that have put the physical well-being of users and others at high risk.
Also, some people have reported engaging in sexual intercourse while on zolpidem and have later been unable to recall the incident. Drinking alcohol can increase the likelihood of these dangerous experiences which may be described as dissociative or fugue-like in nature.
In a study from 1995, researchers evaluated impairments in 24 healthy males who were given acute doses of zolpidem, both alone and combined with alcohol. The skills assessed included information processing ability/rate, immediate memory, and sustained attention. Both alcohol and zolpidem significantly impaired performance on each task, and in general, “additive” effects of alcohol were detected when consumed with 10mg of zolpidem.
Other negative reactions from using sleeping pills and alcohol may include the following:
- Extreme drowsiness and sleepiness
- Memory impairment
- Impaired motor functioning
Commonly Used Sleeping Pills and Alcohol: Interactions
In addition to hypnotics and sedatives containing zolpidem, a number of other sleep aids are known to have interactions with alcohol. They include but are not limited to the following:
- Certain herbal supplements, such as valerian root, chamomile, and lavender
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