Anxiety and insomnia are among the most common disorders in the country, affecting between 40 and 50 million Americans. Because of how anxiety disorders and sleep disorders can feed into each other, someone being kept awake all night by anxiety attacks, for example, many people will find themselves struggling with both at the same time.
With this in mind, the idea of using one medication to treat both problems does not seem all that far-fetched. Xanax, the brand name of the drug alprazolam, was first released onto the pharmaceutical market in 1981 to treat symptoms of anxiety and panic disorders. It remains one of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States.
For those struggling with the effects of an anxiety disorder, Xanax can help them function normally in their daily lives without the fear of a debilitating panic attack.
So, it is not unreasonable for a Xanax user struggling with insomnia or other sleep issues to take an extra dose of Xanax, hoping its sedative effects can help them to fall asleep.
The question is, is using Xanax for insomnia, a use which it has technically not been approved for, a safe thing to do?
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Xanax for treating anxiety and panic disorders. However, physicians prescribe it for “off-label” use, meaning that, while it has not been approved for a specific purpose, which in this case is inducing sleep, it has been found to be useful in doing so.
Xanax is part of a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, medications that work against symptoms of anxiety by depressing the central nervous system and producing feelings of sedation and relaxation. Benzodiazepines are widely prescribed in the United States despite their fairly high risk for abuse and potential addiction. Benzodiazepines work by mimicking a neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA regulates how the body responds to feelings of stress, fear, and yes, anxiety, and generally calms brain activity and inhibits nerve signals.
By mimicking GABA and binding to the brain’s GABA receptors, benzos activate the receptors and greatly increase GABA production, depressing the central nervous system in a way that the body would never be able to do naturally on its own.
In comparison, non-benzodiazepine sedatives like Ambien and Lunesta, commonly known as “Z-drugs,” are more discriminating in what GABA receptors they activate, strictly activating the receptors that induce sleep. Because benzos have a more widespread effect on the central nervous system, they are much stronger than Z-drugs, but they also have far more side effects, some of them more dangerous than others.
Sleep Hangover and Other Side Effects
If someone is taking Xanax for their anxiety, meaning only occasional use, and they decide to take Xanax to sleep, then they are extremely likely to experience what is known as a “hangover effect,” which can include feelings of grogginess, reduced motor skills, impaired coordination, and even amnesia.
These effects can persist from anywhere between eight and 12 hours, which means someone taking Xanax for sleep could wake up feeling more tired than they would have without it, or, if they take Xanax late at night, such as after midnight, and then wake up at six in the morning, they could potentially be dealing with sleep-hangover side effects for the next six to seven hours.
Another part of this issue is that, as has been stated, Xanax’s main purpose is to treat anxiety, and so when someone takes Xanax while experiencing an anxiety or panic attack, the medication is working against chemicals in the body, counteracting them by mass-producing GABA.
When someone takes Xanax for sleep rather than for the symptoms of anxiety, because there is nothing for the Xanax to counteract, they will experience even more intense sleep-hangover effects. This could prove to be extremely dangerous if someone has to drive or do other activities that require alertness in order to be safe.
Not Worth the Withdrawal
While taking Xanax to sleep will most likely not have any immediate harmful effects, falling into a pattern of use presents many possible problems. Perhaps most important is that someone regularly taking Xanax can become tolerant to its effects very quickly. Just one to two weeks of nightly Xanax use is enough to build up a tolerance and start requiring more of it to achieve the same insomnia-fighting effects.
As a person’s tolerance grows and they need to take more Xanax, they are likely to begin misusing it, and misuse is a short road to abuse, which can then progress to dependence and addiction. Once someone has become dependent on Xanax, especially needing Xanax to sleep, it becomes extremely difficult to stop using. This is in part because the withdrawal symptoms for Xanax, as well as benzodiazepines in general, can be unpleasant, painful, and sometimes even dangerous.
Any attempts to stop using Xanax should be done under the supervision of a medical professional, ideally at a medical detox center. There, generally, an individual will be put on a tapering schedule to slowly lower their Xanax dosage until it is safe for them to stop using.
The worst thing someone can do is try to stop using Xanax all at once. Not only can this bring about difficult to manage symptoms like rebound insomnia, which is typically worse than the initial insomnia someone would have been dealing with before taking Xanax, it can also cause life-threatening seizures.
In short, while Xanax does, technically speaking, work against insomnia and can help someone fall asleep, the side effects and potential for abuse and addiction make it far too risky a choice, especially when considering that someone using it is just as likely to wake up as groggy and unrested as they would be without it.
Are You Struggling?
Addiction does not happen overnight. It often is a slow process that one might not even be able to identify at first. If you find yourself or someone you care about growing more dependent on medications like Xanax, we can help you find the treatment needed to successfully stop using and take the first steps on the journey to a substance-free life.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. Call now to get help with finding an addiction treatment program that provides you with an effective level of care.