The Health Risks of Abusing Sleeping Drugs

There are two classes of sleeping drugs: barbiturates and a group of non-barbiturate sleeping aids.

Taking Sleeping Drugs

At one time, barbiturates were seen as harmless help for those whose daytime stresses prevented them from sleeping. Over time, their addictiveness was realized and new sleep aids, supposedly less addictive, came onto the market. But both barbiturates and non-barbiturate sleep aids have become drugs of abuse.

Some people may use high doses of these drugs to get a “buzz” or to manage their moods. When they have been abusing an upper, a stimulant that makes them more active and they want to relax or sleep, they may abuse one of these sleeping drugs. But sleeping drugs themselves can interfere with the body’s vital function sufficiently to cause injury or death.

Central Nervous System Suppression and Death

These drugs slow down the central nervous system (CNS) composed of the brain and the spine. The CNS controls all your bodily functions, so too much of these drugs can easily kill a person by stopping the heart or breathing.

For someone who has been using cocaine, Ecstasy or methamphetamine, one of these drugs may enable them to relax and sleep. The problem is that the difference between a dose that makes you sleepy and relaxed and the dose that kills you is very small. A slight error can end one’s life and when a person is choosing their own dosage, it is impossible to be exact.

Pregnancy and Birth

New Born

A pregnant woman who takes too much of the drug can miscarry or damage the baby. A newborn may suffer uncontrollable bleeding, even in the brain from the trauma of moving through the birth canal. Heart abnormalities, cleft palate and spinal cord deformities are also greater risks when one is abusing these drugs.

Injury from Non-Barbiturate Sleep Aids

The group of non-barbiturate sleep aids has received criticism for a high number of incidents of mental disturbance and amnesia. Some users of drugs like Ambien or Lunesta would cook, talk on the phone or even drive without remembering what they had done. Since these people were less than fully awake during these acts, they put themselves at greater risk for accidental death or injury.

But even when the drug is used as directed, users can be injured or injure others. Because of the number of traffic accidents from people who were still impaired the next morning after taking Ambien to sleep, the Food and Drug Administration ordered that the recommended dosages of Ambien be lowered. This order was issued in January 2013. Of course, a person abusing this drug is not likely to pay attention to orders from the FDA.

When the person having this type of accident was well-known, their problems made the news. News anchor Tom Brokaw was admitted to the hospital after becoming confused while on Ambien. Patrick Kennedy crashed his car, as did the ex-wife of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Mayo Clinic found that if you were elderly and using these drugs, your risk of falling was 400% higher.

A report published early 2012 found that those who used sleeping pills, even occasionally, had a 450% higher death rate than those who did not. The report was not able to make a direct connection between sleep aid use and the death of the user; it could only note the coincidence. Another result found by authors of this report was that heavy users had a 35% greater chance of developing cancer during the term of the study (four years). Drugs included in this report were Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, barbiturates, the benzodiazepine Restoril (often given for sleep problems), and a few antihistamines used for sleep.

These reports all concern people who were taking this drug as directed. But back as far as 2005, a New York University psychiatrist reported that he had patients who were abusing Ambien “to get a buzz.” They run the same or more serious risks because their dosages will not be controlled.

Liver Damage


As sleep aids are broken down by the body, the chemicals can reform into new drugs that are toxic to the liver. This process is referred to as “metabolizing” the drug and the liver does most of this work. Abnormal hepatic (liver) function is included in the “infrequent” side effects of Ambien, Sonata and Lunesta. But that is at recommended dosages. An abuser will take a higher dosage to get the recreational effect he is looking for.

When Ambien or a similar drug is combined with alcohol, the chemicals that result from the combination can damage the liver even more severely.

Effects on Babies

When these drugs are taken near the end of pregnancy, the newborn may manifest severe respiratory depression, which may require that the child be helped to breathe mechanically after birth.

Many young people are given drugs to calm them down in school. It’s a controversial practice, not only because these drugs may not be the best solution, but also because it means that many young people have ready access to these addictive, harmful drugs. Keep reading to learn more.


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