Can You Become Addicted To A Natural Sleep Aid?

September 13, 2017 |


Most people take a natural sleep aid to avoid the side effects of a prescription sleeping pill, but even natural products can become addictive if they are misused. Addiction occurs when a person engages in an activity or ingests a substance with compulsive tendencies (1). Just as you can become addicted to gambling or shopping, you can also become addicted to taking natural products.

Anything that makes you feel good has the potential to make you addicted. To avoid becoming dependant on your natural sleep aid, it’s important to know how addiction works so you can prevent the problem before it happens. Here’s how to avoid becoming addicted to your sleep aid by improving your sleep hygiene and picking out ingredients that are less likely to cause dependence.

The Link Between Addiction and Sleep Aids

You can get addicted to just about anything that makes you feel good. The term addiction refers to the continuation of engaging in an activity or using a substance that is pleasurable at the time, but becomes problematic when it begins to interfere with your daily responsibilities, such as work and family life. Many people become addicted to gambling, shopping, sex, or substances such as alcohol and drugs. People with addictions are usually not aware that their behavior is out of control (1).

There are several ways to define the word addiction. One definition includes physical addiction, which is a biological process in which the body adapts itself to a certain drug. Over time, the drug no longer has the same effects on a person as it once did, so they take more. Another common form of addiction is external cues. For example, an alcoholic who enters a bar may have a drink just because the atmosphere is inviting and there is an association between bars and alcohol (1).

Prescription sleeping pills are especially easy to become addicted to because of the ingredients used in their products. Even over-the-counter sleep aids can use dangerous ingredients that are habit-forming. According to a 2016 Consumers Report, many over-the-counter sleep aids contain an antihistamine known as diphenhydramine, which works by blocking histamine receptors in the brain that are responsible for being awake (2). Despite being addictive, many products with this ingredient claim that their product is non-habit forming.

According to a 2015 national survey conducted by Consumers Reports, approximately 20 percent of a group of 4,023 people admitted to taking an over-the-counter medication for sleep. Of that 20 percent, about 18 percent reported that they took it every day and 41 percent said they used it for at least a year or longer (2). Diphenhydramine has been shown to cause dizziness, confusion, constipation, and drowsiness. It may also cause impaired driving, balance, and coordination the day after you take it. Furthermore, a 2015 study conducted by JAMA Internal Medicine found that taking antihistamines such as diphenhydramine for extended periods of time increases your risk of developing dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease (3).

Other side effects of diphenhydramine may include:

  • Nausea
  • Dry throat and mouth
  • Drowsiness the day after taking it
  • Balance issues
  • Urinary retention or constipation
  • Blurry vision
  • Memory problems


Doctor Carl Bazil, director of the Sleep and Epilepsy division at Columbia University’s Department of Neurology, stated that diphenhydramine could cause a person to become psychologically dependent on it. He said that the pills are not addictive in the physical sense, but a person can become psychologically dependent on them (2).

The reason why drug companies can claim that their products are non-habit forming even though they are is because of an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1962. The passage allowed drug companies to use the term "non-habit forming" on medications that contain diphenhydramine. At the time of the amendment, there was not enough evidence to show that certain drugs caused people to become addicted to them. The passage has not been changed since; therefore, drug companies are free to make this claim on over-the-counter sleep aids that contain diphenhydramine (2).

According to a spokesperson at the Food and Drug Administration, a person who uses an over-the-counter sleep aid for less than two weeks at the recommended dosage is not likely to become dependant on it (2). But when a Consumers Report agent asked the Food and Drug Administration for studies to prove that over-the-counter sleep aids are not addictive, none were provided (2). According to a 2008 animal study, diphenhydramine is probably habit forming. The study concluded that diphenhydramine increased the amount of dopamine that is released into the brain, which causes a similar sensation to that of cocaine (2).

Although you are much less likely to become chemically dependent on a natural sleep aid that is sourced from pure ingredients, there is always a possibility. People with addictive personalities or even someone who likes the way a product makes them feel can misuse just about anything that brings about a desired effect. Some people may think that because taking a small amount of a natural sleep aid is good, then taking more must be better. Natural products may also open up the door for exploring more powerful drugs, especially in young people who are curious and impressionable.

According to a 2006 report conducted by the University of Rochester Medical School, teenagers who used herbal products were much more likely to move on to illicit drugs. The study found that young people who had never used an herbal product before were six times more likely also to try cocaine. They were also 15 times more liable to use anabolic steroids than teenagers who have never used an herbal product (4). Teens who responded to the study reported using natural or herbal products to make them feel better or perform better at school and in sports.

Here are some shocking statistics from the study (4):

  • Teenagers who used herbal products were 4.4 times more likely to use inhalants, LSD, PCP, mushrooms, ecstasy and other illegal drugs.
  • Teenagers who used herbal products were 5.9 times more likely to use cocaine.
  • Teenagers who used herbal products were 6.8 times more likely to use methamphetamines.
  • Teenagers who used herbal products were 8.1 times more likely to use IV drugs.
  • Teenagers who used herbal products were 8.8 times more likely to use heroin.
  • Teenagers who used herbal products were 14.5 times more likely to use steroids.

Tips For Preventing Addiction To Sleeping Pills

Even if you’re taking the best natural sleep aid, the risk of addiction is always present. Taking too much of any product for too long desensitizes the brain and increases the need for more to produce the same effects.

The best way to prevent addiction is to follow the instructions on the product’s label and avoid increasing the amount you take too quickly. Cycling your natural sleep aid is a good way to avoiding becoming tolerant or dependent on it. Here are some other tips for preventing addiction of sleep aid pills.

  1. Understand that your sleep cycle might not be that abnormal.

Before you start any sleep aid, ask yourself why you’re taking it. If it’s because you think your sleep cycle is irregular, you may want to think again. Research shows that our ancestors used to sleep in blocks or stages. Some people slept from the beginning of the night until the middle. They would wake up for an hour or two and perform a relaxing activity, such as housework or reading, and then go back to sleep for the rest of the night. These people were also more likely to take a nap in the early afternoon (5).

If you’re the type of person who wakes up in the middle of the night for a few hours instead of sleeping the whole night through, you may actually be normal. Still, most people prefer not to wake up in the middle of the night and would rather be sleeping during this time. If you’re not satisfied with being an individual who doesn’t sleep the entire evening, then you may want to consider a natural sleep aid right before you go to bed. If you’re fine with being a midnight waker, prepare yourself by keeping books or relaxing music on hand. Spend an hour or so relaxing and then try again without taking anything.

  1. Set your circadian rhythm by using better sleep hygiene.

One of the main reasons why people take sleeping pills in the first place is because they have thrown off their circadian rhythm or internal sleep cycle. Luckily, you can reset your inner sleep cycle by conditioning yourself to use better sleep hygiene. You may find that by cleaning up your bedtime routine, you won’t need to take any pills at all.

Start by determining how many hours of sleep you wish to get each night. For most healthy adults, your number should be around seven to nine hours. Count backward from the time you need to get up in the morning. If your alarm goes off at 6 am, try to be in bed no later than 10 pm. You may even want to give yourself a 20-minute window to fall asleep by heading to bed by 9:30 pm.

You’ll also want to wake up at the same time every day even if you didn’t go to sleep on time. This will help your body develop a rhythm. Eventually, you should start to get sleepy at your designated bedtime and wake up without the assistance of an alarm clock.

If you have a hard time getting to sleep each night, try making your room dark and keeping electronics out. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep. It is produced in the brain when your optic nerves sense that it’s dark out. When your brain detects light, it stops making melatonin. Even the blue light from your smartphone or television is enough to stop your brain from making melatonin.

Instead of watching television or scrolling through your phone before bed, do something relaxing to prepare your mind and body for sleep. Meditation has been shown to increase your melatonin levels and improve your sleep (6). You can also take a warm bath with a calming essential oil such as lavender oil, which has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression to help you sleep (7).  

If you’re always worried about what you need to do the next day, try journaling or writing out a to-do list. Studies show that journaling and other forms of writing can reduce anxiety and stress, which may help you sleep (8). The goal should be to go to bed feeling completely relaxed and free of stress.

  1. Take one less pill each day.

Nothing good ever happens fast. The same mentality can be applied to reducing your sleeping pill habit. Start by taking one less pill each day. Use a chart or write down your progress, so there’s no confusion as to how many pills you've taken that day. Quitting a pill addiction cold turkey doesn’t work for everyone. It can also cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Ease your body out of an addiction by gradually decreasing the amount you give it one pill at a time.

Benzodiazepines are among the most addictive type of prescription sleep aids. According to a report published in WebMD, they can cause a high psychological and physical dependence that creates intense withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them (9). Be prepared for some discomfort if you’re on one of these drugs. It may help to switch over to a natural sleep aid gradually, but your priority should be to stop taking the drug completely and then look for a better option.

Even natural sleep aids can be addictive if they are misused. The best way to break an addiction is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Using good sleep hygiene to reset your circadian rhythm takes some work, but it’s a good way to improve your sleep without taking a pill. Using a natural sleep aid as suggested by the label on the bottle can be incorporated into your sleep routine, but even natural substances can desensitize the brain when they are abused.  Try cycling through your natural sleep aid by taking it for three days on and one day off, or only use it when you absolutely need it.