About 4 percent of American adults use sleeping pills, says the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and that number is smaller than the number of people who deal with sleep troubles on a regular basis. This seems to suggest that most people look for other solutions, rather than medications, when they need to get to sleep at night.
Those who do use medications, however, might think of those drugs as benign substances that can be combined with almost anything. As a result, they may be tempted to mix their sleeping pills with alcohol.
Mixing any prescription medication with alcohol without the express permission of your doctor is not wise, especially if the instructions that come with your prescription strictly prohibit alcohol use. But if the thought of avoiding alcohol while you take your medications worries you, the dangers you might face can vary depending on the type of medication you’re using.
Benzodiazepine medications sometimes used as sleep aids include Ativan, Valium, Restoril, and Halcion. These are some of the earliest medications ever prescribed for sleep troubles, and they work by altering brain chemistry.
According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, benzodiazepines can mimic a neurotransmitter within brain cells that is associated with sleepiness. People who take benzodiazepines may feel as though they are naturally sleepy, but the drowsiness they feel is a direct result of the drug they have taken.
In addition to altering brain chemistry, benzodiazepines can sedate key portions of the brain, leading to slower breathing rates and a slower heartbeat. It’s this attribute that makes mixing benzodiazepines with alcohol so very dangerous.
Alcohol can also slow one’s breathing rate. When alcohol and benzodiazepines are combined, this can lead to significantly impaired breathing. It is difficult to know how much alcohol a person must drink or how many pills are required to bring this problem about, as it depends on many factors, including one’s age, tolerance to both drugs, weight, and genetics.
It is known that people who combine benzodiazepines and alcohol can slide into a coma-like state and require care from a professional team to recover. Without that immediate, emergency care, people can die as a result of combining these drugs.
Benzodiazepines have been proven effective in helping some people get to sleep, but they come with uncomfortable side effects, including daytime sleepiness. Researchers developed new types of drugs, known as sedative-hypnotic drugs, that can also help people to fall asleep and stay asleep, and they are not associated with daytime drowsiness.
The creator of the sedative-hypnotic drug Lunesta reports that it is made for adults only, and it is considered a controlled substance because it has been associated with drug abuse and dependence. The makers report that the drug should not be given to people with a history of drug or alcohol dependence.
A similar warning appears in documentation from the manufacturer of the sedative-hypnotic drug Sonata. Here, manufacturers report that the drug should not be provided to those with a history of drug dependence and that it should be stored safely to prevent abuse.
Warnings like this should prompt you to avoid taking these drugs with alcohol. Their ability to alter brain chemistry and trigger changes that make drug use compulsive can be augmented with alcohol, and that could make an addiction appear in a very short time.
In addition, these drugs have been associated with a form of amnesia. People have been known to eat, drive, and shop while under the influence of these drugs. Those who begin drinking before taking these medications might drink even more when the drug takes effect, and they may not even remember doing so.
Unfortunately, combining drugs in this class with alcohol is somewhat common. As research published in the journal Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs points out, about 19 percent of people taking sedative-hypnotic sleep aids drink alcohol at the same time.
Researchers have not determined how many drugs are safe to take with alcohol, as it can vary depending on height, weight, age, tolerance, and more.
For some people, insomnia symptoms are triggered by depression. As a result, antidepressant medications might be used to help people sleep. The theory is that the medications will address the underlying issue that is keeping people from sleep, and with that problem solved, people can get the rest they need.
Research published in Current Psychiatry Reports suggests that a very low dose of antidepressants given right before bedtime can help most people to fall and stay asleep. But larger doses can cause extreme sedation that persists through the day, and some can disrupt sleep. Doctors and patients often work together to find a medication that works just right for someone with insomnia.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests that all people who take antidepressants avoid alcohol, but the organization reports that some people are reluctant to give up drinking. As a result, they suggest that one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men is permitted by some doctors who prescribe antidepressants for their patients.
Mixing sleeping pills with alcohol is a bit like playing personal roulette, says an expert writing for Psychology Today. You never truly know how the drugs will interact when they are in your body, and the experience you have one day might be completely different from the experience you have another day. Each time you combine the substances, you are hoping that you will not experience an issue that will cost you your life.
Even if the two substances together do not cause intense sedation and respiratory distress, they have the potential to alter your coordination.
If you become confused and disoriented and you walk while impaired, you could fall, trip, or experience some other kind of accident that could lead to cuts, bruises, or broken bones.
You may also say or do something that you regret while under the influence. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, and sleeping pills can impair your memory. This can lead you to settle scores or get into difficult conversations without even remembering that you have done so the next day.
If you absolutely must mix the two substances, an expert writing for Live Science suggests placing at least six hours between your last drink of alcohol and your first dose of sleeping pills. That lag time could allow your body to process all of the active alcohol you’ve ingested before the sleeping pill begins to take effect.
If you cannot imagine your life without a sip of alcohol in it, you could be dealing with an addiction issue. An inability to stop drinking even when you want to do so suggests that your brain cells have been altered by the presence of alcohol and that you are losing control over your ability to make rational decisions about your drinking.
If you are hoping to drink alcohol with your sleeping pills to feel a fuzzy or blurry high, this is also cause for concern. Alcohol and sleeping pills are not benign substances. Both have the power to change your life for the worst, and you may not notice the subtle signs of addiction as they develop. If you’re searching online in the hopes of learning about a safe high, it might be time to get help.
(August 2013). CDC Analysis Finds Low Rate of Prescription Sleep Aid Use in U.S. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Retrieved December 2018 from https://aasm.org/cdc-analysis-finds-low-rate-of-prescription-sleep-aid-use-in-u-s/
(July 2017). World Benzodiazepine Awareness Day: Sleep Apnea and Anxiety Drugs Do Not Mix. American Sleep Apnea Association. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.sleepapnea.org/bad/
(November 2018). Benzodiazepine Toxicity. Stat Pearls. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482238/
(2012). Medication Guide: Lunesta. Sunovion Pharmaceuticals. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/DrugSafety/UCM134691.pdf
(April 2013). Medication Guide: Sonata. King Pharmaceuticals Research and Development. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/DrugSafety/UCM349707.pdf
(March 2017). Concomitant Alcohol and Sedative-Hypnotic Drug Use Among the Elderly in Norway. Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Retrieved December 2018 from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1455072516683896
(August 2017). Effects of Antidepressants on Sleep. Current Psychiatry Reports. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5548844/
Can I Drink Alcohol While Taking Antidepressants? National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.nami.org/FAQ/Mental-Health-Medication-FAQ/Can-I-drink-alcohol-while-taking-antidepressants
(November 2011). Alcohol and Sleeping Pills: A Strange Combination. Psychology Today. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-rest/201111/alcohol-and-sleeping-pills-strange-combination
(November 2013). Holiday Drinking: How 8 Common Medications Interact with Alcohol. Live Science. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.livescience.com/41481-how-common-medications-interact-alcohol.html