Learn about the dangerous side effects of combining alcohol and sleeping pills.

Article at a Glance:

Mixing alcohol and sleeping pills can create several dangerous and potentially deadly side effects. These include:

Decreased alertness

Injury from changes in alertness or altered judgment

Impaired coordination

Impaired judgment

Sleepwalking

Impaired memory

Increased fatigue

Slowed or labored breathing

Death

Alcohol & Sleeping Pills

Mixing sleeping pills and alcohol can result in the heightened effects of both substances. Sleeping pills are sedative substances that typically suppress activity in the central nervous system, and alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Taking two drugs that affect the body in similar ways can compound their negative effects and lead to dangerous health issues.

Related Topic: Can you overdose on sleeping pills

The combination of these two substances can lead to several negative outcomes and should be avoided. People who are likely to mix these substances include those who use alcohol frequently and struggle with insomnia or those who have an addiction to sleeping medication.

Side Effects of Mixing Sleeping Pills With Alcohol

The side effects of mixing alcohol and sleeping pills are due to each substance increasing the effects of the other.

Common side effects of mixing sleeping pills and alcohol include:

  • Suppression of the nervous system
  • Increased risk of overdose
  • Increased risk of sleeping pill addiction
  • Increased risk of alcohol use disorder
  • Interactions while sleeping, such as sleepwalking, sleep-eating or sleep-driving
  • Impaired memory
  • Worsened quality of sleep
  • Risk of death

Frequently, the effects of mixing these substances are related to a suppression of the normal function of the body, especially the nervous system, including the parts of the brain that affect breathing, cognition, and alertness.

Risk of Overdose

The risk of a sleeping pill and alcohol overdose is very real. Studies show that many common sleeping pills can be deadly when mixed with alcohol, especially if too much is used of either substance.

Death can occur when the combination suppresses the level of breathing beyond what is safe, or if this combination affects the heart. While it is common to think of a sleeping pill and alcohol death being related to changes in the heartbeat or breathing, death may also be more likely due to the combined impairment of alertness, judgment, and coordination. This impairment makes seemingly simple activities like swimming, driving or crossing the road potentially deadly.

Sleep Interactions

Mixing sleeping pills and alcohol can also lead to sleepwalking and impaired memory. There are several documented cases of people sleepwalking, sleep-eating and even sleep-driving on the popular sleeping medication Ambien.

These episodes may not always be remembered afterward. When alcohol is mixed with a medication like Ambien, these effects are worse. These episodes could result in injury or, in some situations, like sleep-driving, may lead to arrest or other unintended legal consequences.

Decreased Sleep Quality

Finally, mixing sleeping medications and alcohol does not improve sleep. While this combination may make a person feel more tired and fall asleep more quickly, the rest that they will get will be of poor quality. The changes in the chemicals in the brain that occur with alcohol use, especially when combined with sleeping pills, will decrease the sleep-related brain waves and cause the person to feel unrested when they wake up.

Sleeping Pills Commonly Misused With Alcohol

Some of the most common prescription sleeping medications include:

  • Ambien (zolpidem)
  • Dalmane (flurazepam)
  • Lunesta (eszopiclone)
  • Prosom (estazolam)
  • Restoril (temazepam)
  • Sonata (zaleplon)
  • Rozerem (ramelteon)
  • Belsomra (suvorexant)
  • Halcion (triazolam)
  • Silenor (doxepin)
  • Desyrel (trazodone)

While these prescription medications all aid with sleep, other sleep aids may be purchased over the counter. The most common over-the-counter sleep aids include melatonin and medications containing diphenhydramine, which is the active ingredient in Benadryl.

How these medications work are all somewhat different, but almost all of these medications in some way decrease a person’s level of consciousness and can cause serious side effects when mixed with alcohol.

Over-The-Counter (OTC) Sleeping Aids Commonly Misused With Alcohol

While there are many prescription sleep aid medications, other sleep aids are available for purchase over the counter. People who struggle with drinking may attempt to use over-the-counter medications for insomnia, since sleep problems are common in people with an alcohol use disorder. The most common over-the-counter sleep aids include:

  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Aleve PM, Tylenol PM, Sominex): Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine that is sometimes used for sleep. Drinking alcohol while taking diphenhydramine can be dangerous — a drug interaction occurs that causes more attention impairment than expected. People who take diphenhydramine and alcohol together process information and track objects more slowly. These effects are additive when the two substances mix, increasing the effect of each substance. The risk of a substance use disorder may be increased in people who mix these two substances.
  • Doxylamine (Unisom): Like diphenhydramine, doxylamine is an antihistamine that can be used for sleep. Alcohol should be avoided when taking doxylamine due to the risk of additive side effects, including impaired judgment, thinking, and motor skills.
  • Melatonin: Melatonin is a naturally-produced hormone involved in the sleep-wake cycle that can also be purchased over-the-counter as a sleep aid. Melatonin and alcohol have no known drug interactions. However, a study showed that melatonin did not improve sleep in those who struggled with alcohol. For this reason, it is unclear whether melatonin has any sleep benefit when taken with alcohol.
  • Valerian: Valerian is an herbal supplement often taken as a sleep aid or to treat anxiety symptoms. Avoid drinking if you take valerian, as mixing them can increase side effects like dizziness, drowsiness, confusion and difficulty concentrating. In rare cases, mixing valerian with alcohol may increase the risk of liver damage.

If you or a loved one find yourself struggling with habitual use of sleeping medication or alcohol abuse, know that recovery is possible. The Recovery Village has caring professionals who can guide you through treatment options and help achieve recovery. Contact one of our compassionate staff members today to start your recovery.

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Sources

Hoque, Romy & Chesson, Andrew L. “Zolpidem-Induced Sleepwalking, Sleep Related Eating Disorder, and Sleep-Driving: Fluorine-18-Flourodeoxyglucose Positron Emission Tomography Analysis, and a Literature Review of Other Unexpected Clinical Effects of Zolpidem.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Oct. 15, 2009. Accessed April 9, 2019.

Pagel, J. F. & Pames, Bennett L. “Medications for the Treatment of Sleep Disorders: An Overview.” Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2001. Accessed April 9, 2019.

Cleveland Clinic. “Sleeping Pills.” March 15, 2017. Accessed April 9, 2019.

Medscape. “Ramelteon (Rx).” Jan. 2019. Accessed April 9, 2019.

Medscape. “Suvorexant (Rx).” 2019. Accessed April 9, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.