We’ve all been there, staring at the ceiling as the clock ticks louder and louder, but if it makes you feel any better, you’re not alone. Insomnia affects 60 million Americans each year. We all know what causes it-stress, anxiety, diet- but what can you do to prevent it?
People turn to sleeping pills to function better. Indeed, proper sleep has significant health benefits. Lower levels of stress, increased energy as well as reduced risk of serious illnesses like cancer have all been linked with sleeping well. Despite the obvious benefits, for a few people turning to sleeping pills has proven fatal.
It’s no secret that sleeping pills have been the drug of choice for suicides. Sleeping pills work by slowing down bodily functions. Heart rates, breathing and brain activity are all reduced. Overdosing causes the body to literally stop functioning whilst the user is unconscious.
Not all deaths by sleeping pills are suicides, though. There are other factors at play including tolerance, pre-existing medical conditions or mixing substances. Accidental overdoses require immediate medical attention. But, today we’re going to look at how many sleeping pills it actually takes to die.
Before we get into it, we need to look at the different types of pill and how they act. Broadly speaking, there are three types. Pills that act on your central nervous system (CNS), pills that act on your brain and pills which promote the release of melatonin- the body’s natural sleep hormone.
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Different Types Of Sleeping Pill And How They Work
The first type, which targets the CNS, have a profound effect on your body. Drugs like Zolpidem, lower your heart rate, breathing rate and muscular activity. Aside from putting you to sleep, these ‘Z-type’ pills have side-effects which target other bodily functions controlled by the CNS.
The second type, which works on the brain, has less effect on your CNS. Benzodiazepines, which include Benzedrine and Valium, block neurotransmitters by binding to receptors in the brain. Unlike, ‘Z-type’ pills the effects on the rest of the body are limited. Although, mixing with alcohol can be fatal.
The third type, and rarest of the three cause your brain to release the hormone melatonin. These drugs work with your natural hormones to bring about sleep. Ramelteon is one type of drug that does this and poses the least threat in terms of overdose.
Taken in their recommended dosage, all of these drugs are low-risk. They’re FDA approved and marked as safe for consumption. This is why they’re widely available and are readily prescribed by your local doctor. However, your body will build a natural tolerance over long-term usage.
As your tolerance increases, you’ll have to increase dosage to achieve the desired effect. Long-term exposure equals lower success rates. A primary cause of overdosing is due to patients taking too much in order to bring about sleep.
Your doctor will prescribe your correct dosage based on your medical history and your age. If you have a weak-heart, for example, you’ll have a lower recommended dosage. Equally, elderly patients or young teenagers will be given reduced dosage.
These drugs become particular dangerous if patients have spent time without use before returning to the drug. A period without using a drug will lower your tolerance to it. You may then find that taking the amount you took previously has a life-threatening result because your tolerance has dropped.
Tolerance and dependence go hand in hand. The longer you are on sleeping pills the more your body works to counteract their effects. If you’re regularly using pills to sleep, your brain will reduce its output of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
The result of this reduced melatonin output, means you’ll feel awake and alert. Relying on sleeping pills can result in periods of insomnia when you’re not taking them. For this reason, sleeping pills should always be considered as a last resort rather than a first port of call.
Taken into isolation, sleeping pills prescribed by your doctor are widely considered safe. However, if they are combined with other drugs in your system they become fatal. Alcohol consumption is known to be exceptionally dangerous when combine with Benzodiazepines.
Alcohol and sleeping pills are a dangerous combination because they both act as a depressant on the CNS. This can cause an overload causing your body’s vital processes to shut-down. Breathing becomes shallow. Heart rate slows, starving the brain of oxygen.
To avoid overdosing by mixing substances, inform your doctor of your alcohol intake. If you’re prescribed for any other medication it is vital the doctor is made aware as it will inform the type of sleeping pill you’re given. If you have pre-existing conditions, it is essential to inform your doctor.
Pre-existing Medical Conditions
Certain pre-existing conditions will play a role in dosage and type of medication you have access to. A weak heart, for example, will rule out ‘Z-type’ pills because the chances of overloading your CNS are higher.
Sleeping pills weaken your immune system. If you suffer from HIV or other auto-immune diseases you will be high-risk. Weakening your immune system further by taking sleeping pills could have catastrophic consequences.
Other medical conditions which will limit your access to sleeping pills include respiratory, blood or organ related ailments. Asthmatics should avoid sleeping pills where possible. Equally, diabetics risk their health by taking sleeping pills which could upset their glucose/ insulin balance.
How Many Sleeping Pills Does It Take To Die?
To deliver a straight answer, any number above the recommended dosage can be fatal. Even if a dose is within the limits set by your doctor, mixing with other substances like alcohol or caffeine can cause death.
Bearing in mind what we’ve covered above the number of pills will vary from person to person. Individuals with a high tolerance are particularly at risk. The same goes for older or younger people and those with pre-existing conditions.
The most common cause of death is respiratory failure. This is when the CNS shuts down. The lungs struggle to draw enough oxygen. At the same time, the heart weakens reducing blood flow. The blood then doesn’t carry enough oxygen, fast enough to the brain. This starves the brain of oxygen causing death in as little as 4 to 6 minutes.
To be clear, any level of overdose can be fatal.
How Much Is An Overdose?
Technically speaking, any number above the prescribed amount is an overdose. Ignoring the advice of your doctor dramatically increases your risks. Even if the prescription feels low.
To put a number on it. Diazepan was found to be fatal in doses of 1240mg per kg in rats. To apply that dosage to humans it will take 200g to kill a person weighing 160llbs or below. Theoretically, it would take a huge amount of Diazepam, normally administered in 5mg, to kill a human. That said, any amount above the prescribed limit has the potential to be fatal.
What Should You Do If You Overdose?
Calling the emergency services should be your first action. Immediately drink a solution of saltwater which induces vomiting. This will help to remove any undigested sleeping pills from your body. Open your front door to allow paramedics in should your fall unconscious before the ambulance arrives.
Is It Dangerous To Take a Sleeping Pill Every Night?
Sleeping pills only represent a short-term solution. Tolerance and dependence will build up over-time which can be dangerous. Explore alternative options like exercise, dietary changes or stress relieving exercises before seeking out medication.
Taken in isolation, sleeping pill overdoses are difficult to do. They require a huge amount to have a fatal effect. However, in combination with environmental factors, other substances or medical conditions the risks are greatly enhanced. Always take the recommended dosage, on prescription, recommended by your doctor.
FDA approval means that all these drugs have been tested in laboratory conditions. That makes it difficult to overdose by accident. Having said that, these lab conditions don’t take into account your individual tolerance, general health or substance abuse.
Your doctor will usually conduct an in-depth discussion with you before prescribing sleeping pills. Some pills, like Ramelteon, build up in your body over time. Don’t expect instant results and never take more pills than your prescription describes.
Read the safety and side-effects of all prescribed drugs. Never combine alcohol with any type of sleeping pill. Equally, other drugs like caffeine can pose a huge risk. If you’re already on medication, make sure your inform your doctor.
In conclusion, people using sleeping pills are at a high-risk of overdose. Depending on the severity of your condition, the type of pill you’re prescribed will affect your chances. Powerful anti-depressants will only be prescribed in severe cases as these are the most dangerous.
As a final note, if you’re reading this article because you’re feeling depressed or suicidal, please seek help immediately. Contact the Samaritans for an anonymous chat before taking any action. Suicidal tendencies have been related to a lack of sleep. Please seek help now.