Nearly 20 Percent of Americans Take Sleeping Medication. But Aren’t These Drugs Addictive?
This article explores the prevalence of sleeping pill consumption in the U.S. and touches on the need for medical experts to inform their patients of the risks inherent in taking such drugs.
Research shows millions of Americans take sleeping medication. Are they aware of the potentially addictive side effects?
Almost One in Five Americans Takes Sleeping Medication
What is the scope of sleeping pill use in the United States? Health statisticians at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) sought to answer that question. After studying the 2020 National Health Interview Survey, the researchers determined that 8.4% of American adults use sleeping medication most nights or every night. Another 10% use such medications on some nights. Given that sleeping medications were designed to be used in the short term, it is concerning that 18.4% of American adults use such drugs regularly.1
The report found that women tended to use sleeping medications more than men (10.2% compared to 6.6%), and men were less likely to use such drugs as household income increased.
“Many people start believing that the sleep medication is what is making them sleep. There’s a dependence on them, and sometimes tolerance, and they believe that they must use it or they won’t sleep…”
While sleeping drugs are thought by many to be relatively benign, one sleep expert insisted the drugs are being used too often and too poorly. Dr. Lauren Broch, a clinical sleep psychologist at the Northwell Health Sleep Disorders Center in Great Neck, New York, says that “many people start believing that the sleep medication is what is making them sleep. There’s a dependence on them, and sometimes tolerance, and they believe that they must use it or they won’t sleep. That’s never a good thing. There are certainly side effects, slowness of thought, dependence on them, feeling sleepy – sometimes dangerously.” Such dependencies can set the stage for more problems, like using additional mind-altering substances to cope with other life challenges.2
Rather than relying on sleep meds, leading experts in the field encourage people who struggle with sleep to take a more proactive approach to addressing this problem. Quoting Dr. Broch, “the more durable way to help your sleep is to learn better habits. And to educate yourself about sleep.” Given that sleep meds have dangerous side effects and given that there are non-pharmacological ways to improve sleep, Americans should seek out those options and not rely on a medication “solution” to their sleep difficulties.
Are Sleeping Pills Addictive?
In March 2014, the question of whether sleeping pills are addictive was posed to Harvard Medical School. One doctor’s response was as follows: “I’d call sleeping pills variably addictive. People don’t crave them the way that, say, a heroin addict craves heroin. But many people become psychologically dependent—believing they can’t sleep without them. And it’s not just in their heads, either. If people take sleeping pills for a while and then stop, they often experience a rebound effect, becoming more wakeful, restless, and agitated at bedtime than ever before.” Regularly using sleeping pills can make it more difficult for people to regulate their sleeping patterns naturally. Such medications can also create a dependency on them and begin the behavioral pattern of using a pill to attempt to solve a problem rather than getting at the root cause of that problem.3
Non-Pharmaceutical Sleep Aids are Available
For those concerned about the side effects of sleeping drugs, seeking other solutions might be a good idea. Thankfully, there are non-pharmaceutical approaches to getting a better night’s rest. If people who struggle to sleep can find success in more holistic approaches, they can avoid taking drugs altogether.
- valerian root
- chamomile tea
- tryptophan supplement
- 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan)
The above is a partial list, as there are many other natural remedies and supplements to improve sleep. People can also implement habits and routines to improve sleep, like maintaining a set bedtime, keeping the bedroom dark and cool, removing distractions like smartphones, tablets, TVs, or other electronic devices from the bedroom, and refraining from spending non-sleep time in bed.
Addiction Should be Treated As Soon As Possible
While self-medication on sleeping pills or addiction to sleep meds may not be the first health crisis thought of when one thinks of “drug addiction,” dependency on sleeping pills can set the stage for serious substance abuse problems. While kicking a dependency on sleeping drugs is possible on one’s own (this paper in Informed Health offers helpful advice on doing just that), other habits and dependencies are almost impossible to end on one’s own.5
If you know someone who started using sleeping medication and now struggles to stop—someone who might also be self-medicating with other pharmaceuticals or alcohol—please do everything you can to get them help at a qualified treatment center.
USNews. “Nearly 1 in 5 American Adults Takes Sleep Meds.” U.S. News, 2023. usnews.com ↩︎
CDC. “Sleep Medication Use in Adults Aged 18 and Over: United States, 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, 2020. cdc.gov ↩︎
HMS. “By the way, doctor: Are sleeping pills addictive?” Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publishing, 2014. health.harvard.edu ↩︎
WebMD. “Natural Sleep Aids and Remedies.” Web MD, 2022. webmd.com ↩︎
NIH. “Using medication: What can help when trying to stop taking sleeping pills and sedatives?” National Institutes of Health, 2010. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov ↩︎