When a baby has trouble sleeping, we don’t give them sleeping pills. We teach them how to sleep on their own. Yet adults who have difficulty sleeping often turn to dangerous drugs instead of adjusting their habits to improve sleep hygiene, anxiety, activities, and worries that interfere with their ability to sleep. Taking sleeping pills is a dangerous choice. Research who looked at almost 225,000 patients across a 4-year period revealed that just 18 pills a year was associated with a risk of death that was 3.5 times higher during the years of the study. Individuals who took sleeping pills more often had a 35% higher risk of developing cancer. Similar findings have been reported in multiple studies, including a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, when mixed with alcohol and other drugs that diminish the responsiveness of the central nervous system (CNS), sleeping pills can be immediately lethal. Most sleeping pills are a form of sedative, tranquilizer, or hypnotic that slow your brain’s activity. Slowing the brain’s activity makes the drugs useful for easing the stress and anxiety that is frequently associated with insomnia and for relaxing an insomniacs body. The slowed processing of the brain makes your thinking foggy which makes it difficult to fan the flames created by worrisome thoughts.
Common sleeping pills include:
Hypnotics (Non-Benzodiazepine Sedatives)
Pentobarbital Sodium (Nembutal®)
Sleeping pills generally increase the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which, in turn, reduces brain activity, making the person calm and sleepy. If the person doesn’t go to sleep, they’ll be uncoordinated because of the drugs’ effects.
Alcohol also decreases brain activity. Combining alcohol and sleeping pills creates a dangerous polydrug situation where both substances reduce brain activity. When brain activity is reduced too much, it impedes its ability to carry out functions that are essential to life such as making the heart beat and the lungs breathe. When the brain slows too much that it forgets to breath or beat your heart, death is likely. If death doesn’t occur, brain damage from lack of oxygen or permanent psychosis are possible outcomes.
There are no good outcomes from suppressing the function of the brain so much that autonomic nervous system functions aren’t performed.
Call 911 for Help If Someone Experiences any of the following Symptoms
Severely impaired ability to think or reason (cognition)
Psychosis (may be permanent)
Impaired ability to remember
Heart and Circulatory System
Increased risk of heart attack (Cardiac arrest)
Increased risk of stroke
Respiratory System and Lungs
Decrease in motor control of the body, loss of coordination
Inability to focus
Erratic or Unpredictable Behavior
May cause brain lesions to develop that cause permanent behavior changes
Sleep walking that leads to fatalities (such as sleep driving or walking into traffic)
Increased risk of depression, psychotic disorders, clinically relevant anxiety, and bipolar disorder
Every package of sleeping pills should contain an admonishment not to consume alcohol or other CNS depressants including street drugs, opioid analgesics, some antidepressants, antipsychotics, and sedatives. Researchers in multiple countries report that patients often do not read the package inserts that come with their prescription medications. They rely on their healthcare professionals to prescribe safe drugs but if a patient hasn’t been honest about alcohol consumption, street drug use, or all the medications they’re taking, the physician can’t read their minds.
Also, patients should be aware that the physician burnout rate is high. More than half of all physicians have some symptoms of burnout. Burnout interferes with the ability to concentrate and increases the number of medical errors that occur. Patients who take responsibility for reading and following the label themselves may save their own life.
Precautions that May Save Your Life
Don’t combine alcohol and sleeping pills
Don’t combine two or more drugs that advise against drinking alcohol while taking the drug without discussing the combination with your physician.
Read the package insert and if it doesn’t make sense to you, look the drug up online.
Here are examples of warning information about combining three commonly prescribed sleeping pills with alcohol from the AARP Drug Interaction checker:
Note that the combination of alcohol with each of these drugs is considered a severe risk.
Medscape also has a drug interaction checker, but it is not as user friendly as the one that is free on AARP’s website. It takes more work to navigate to the warnings.
Don’t stop taking a prescribed drug without talking to your doctor
If there are interactions, talk to your doctor
Check interactions for over-the-counter drugs including
Over-the-counter cold, allergy, and cough medications
Benadryl (Contained in more than 100 over-the-counter drugs)
Any nighttime medicine should be checked using the drug interaction checker (if PM or ZZZ is in the drug name, be extra cautious)
Don’t take drugs from friends. They may say, “It’s just Tylenol” when it is actually “Tylenol PM” because they don’t know that you also take a sleeping pill. Take responsibility for your health.
Prescription pain medicines including but not limited to Vicodin and OxyCotin are also dangerous in combination with sleeping pills
If you don’t understand clearly when to take your medication or how much to take, ask for clarification
Read the patient information sheets that come with every prescription. If the print is too small to read, complain to the pharmacy and look it up using one of the online prescription drug checkers
Understand how long you should take the drug and what side effects indicate you should seek medical attention or call your doctor
Avoid all alcohol when you are taking prescription drugs and any over-the-counter medications that suppress the central nervous system. Seniors citizens need to be extra cautious because it may take their body longer to metabolize the alcohol
Don’t rely on the warnings on the bottle. When researchers ordered a prescribed drug that can have life threatening complications at five different national pharmacies, the warning labels varied at each pharmacy and one pharmacy didn’t include any warning labels at all! When they took the testing further and ordered the same drug from three different locations of the same pharmacy, the labeling and warnings were different at each pharmacy.
Despite strict regulations, warning label compliance is not sufficient to rely on pharmacy labels to keep you safe. Each year, 128,000 Americans die because they took drugs as prescribed. Five times that, 1.3 million, are injured by prescribed medications. Look every drug you take up using one of the drug interaction trackers above. Each time you are prescribed a new drug or take a new over-the-counter drug, check for interactions among all the drugs you take. Set up a system to keep track of when you should take your pills and whether you took them. Make sure you understand whether or not you can drink alcohol when you take specific medications, including sleeping pills
Use a daily pill organizer to help you remember if you took your pills. If you’re not home when you need to take your pills, there are daily organizers with slots for morning, afternoon, evening, and bedtime that are easy to carry.
When you do something every day, it is easy to forget whether you did it on a specific day. Taking twice the dose of your sleeping pill can have serious consequences. If mixed with alcohol, those consequences can be deadly.
Alternatives to Sleeping Pills if You want to Drink Alcohol
Solving the underlying problems that make you want sleeping pills and alcohol is the best choice.
The Importance of Good Nutrition
If you’re having difficulty sleeping to the point where you want to take a sleeping pill but are stressed because you regularly drink alcohol, better nutrition and some supplements may help you sleep better and may reduce your desire for alcohol. Metabolizing alcohol can deplete some the nutrients that maintain mental health, leading to physical and emotional problems.
Magnesium helps your body get to sleep. A lack of magnesium increases anxiety and stress response which may increase the desire to drink alcohol as a way to reduce anxiety. If you regularly drink or occasionally drink to the point of intoxication, you should take a magnesium supplement to make sure your body’s stores weren’t depleted when your liver had to process the alcohol.
Alcohol use can increase mood disorders, depression, anxiety, and apathy because your body depletes nutrients that protect against those problems when it processes the alcohol. The decrease in your mental and emotional well-being this causes increases the desire to drink alcohol. Restoring the vitamins and nutrients to your system can restore your mental well-being and make it easier to avoid alcohol.
The best long-term choice is a well-balanced diet and consuming enough water. In the interim, supplements can help your body restore lost vitamins and minerals. Look for a supplement that includes B-complex vitamins which are often affected by alcohol consumption:
Thiamin (Vitamin B1)
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
Niacin (Vitamin B3)
Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6)
Cobalamin (Vitamin B12)
Also look for these ingredients in a daily supplement:
Omega 3 EFA
You may be amazed by how much easier it is to stop drinking when your body has the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that help maintain good mental health.
Taking supplements doesn’t offset all the negative effects of regular alcohol consumption or binge drinking, but it can help you recover. It would not be wise to assume you can drink frequently or in large quantities without repercussions if you eat well.
You should drink 15 – 16 cups of water each day if you’re a male and 12 – 13 cups if you’re female. These recommendations are based on average body sizes so if you are unusually large or small for your gender, adjust your consumption accordingly.
The Importance of Stress Management Skills
When we don’t feel good, we want to feel better. Alcohol suppresses our emotions and provides temporary relief, but it doesn’t do anything to improve the situation and can make it worse.
When we feel negative emotions, it is an indicator that lets us know our mind and/or body are experiencing stress. In modern life, stress can usually be alleviated by changing our perspective about the topic we’re thinking about. When we shift to a more empowered perspective, we can feel better before anything else changes. Changing our perspective doesn’t require alcohol.
In other scenarios, we’re focused on something the media has brought to our awareness that is happening on the other side of the world and we don’t have any power to change it. Focusing on such things harms us and doesn’t help those who are suffering. If you want to send a donation, do it, and then put them out of your mind because thinking about things you can’t control and don’t have the power to change harms you.
We develop habits of thought that make us lean toward negative or positive thoughts that can keep our mind on unhelpful loops. It is possible to change our habits of thought so that our automatic thoughts are less stressful. Making this change can reduce the desire to drink alcohol because when you feel good, alcohol makes you feel worse. It also reduces the anxiety that causes insomnia in so many people, so it can reduce your desire for sleeping pills and alcohol.