The side-effects of 'addictive' sleeping pills as Patrick Stewart opens up about dependency

Sir Patrick Stewart, wearing black frame glasses, a brown collared shirt and a leather jacket, gives a small smile as he attends the Film Independent At The Wallis Presents An Evening With...Sir Patrick Stewart event at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Sir Patrick Stewart detailed his withdrawal from sleeping pills in his new memoir. (Getty Images)

Sir Patrick Stewart has revealed he used to depend on sleeping pills to help him get through the stress of his first divorce in his new memoir, Making It So.

The Star Trek star, 83, was married to his first wife Sheila Falconer from 1966 to 1990. He described the divorce as a “rough time” in his life, and wrote candidly about how he found himself “dependent on sleeping pills to get me the hours of restoration I needed to do my job properly”.

Stewart said he eventually decided to stop taking the pills when he had a break from filming the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, but recalled how difficult it was to quit them.

Sir Patrick Stewart, wearing a tuxedo, leans back on a sofa and smiles softly as he attends the EE BAFTA Film Awards 2023 at The Royal Festival Hall on February 19, 2023
Sir Patrick Stewart writes candidly about his life in his new memoir, Make It So. (Getty Images)

Writing that “sleep became almost impossible”, Stewart added that he would wake up in the early hours of the morning with a “full-body feeling of panic, my legs sweating profusely, which has never happened before and hasn’t since”.

The X-Men star said that therapy helped him overcome the dependence.

What are sleeping pills?

A woman holds a white pill in the palm of one hand and a glass of water in another
Sleeping pills are only prescribed in severe cases of insomnia or anxiety, or other conditions preventing you from sleeping adequately. (Getty Images)

Sleeping pills refer to any medication that may be prescribed to help you sleep. Some are stronger than others and may only be prescribed in severe cases for short-term treatment.

According to the Mind charity, you should only be offered these drugs if you have severe anxiety or insomnia that is having a significant effect on your daily life, and other forms of treatment have not been suitable or helpful.

Read more: Hidden insomnia crisis: 23 million Brits battle sleep issues (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)

There are two types - benzodiazepine and non-benzodiazepine medications.

Benzodiazepine medications are a type of sedative medication that can slow down the body and brain’s functions.

Non-benzodiazepine medications come in different forms. You can get them as:

Z drugs: These act in a similar way to benzodiazepines and are used to treat severe insomnia

Antihistamines: These are a type of medication mainly used for treating allergy symptoms, but some have a side-effect of drowsiness

Melatonin: This is a natural hormone that helps your body regulate its response to the 24-hour cycle of day and night

Chloral hydrate and chlomethiazole: This is a liquid drug and is only used in some rare circumstances

Barbiturates: These were used as sedatives before benzodiazepines became available and are rarely prescribed nowadays

How do benzodiazepines and Z drugs work?

Your body produces a natural chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) that promotes sleep and relieves anxiety. Benzodiazepines increase the effects of GABA and can make you feel relaxed and sleepy, and less anxious. Z drugs have a similar effect on the brain.

The most common side effects include:

  • Drowsiness

  • Unsteadiness, especially in older people

  • Dizziness and light-headedness

  • Slurred speech and blurred vision

  • Muscle weakness

  • Memory problems

  • Constipation

  • Nausea

  • Dry mouth

Read more: Does sleeping next to our phone fuel insomnia? (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)

Are sleeping pills addictive?

A man lays awake in bed suffering from insomnia
Sleeping pills can be effective to treat insomnia, but should only be used as a one-off or short-term treatment. (Getty Images)

According to UK Addiction Treatment Centres, yes, sleeping pills can be addictive. The organisation says on its website: “Sleeping pill addiction can affect anybody but once it has its claws in you, it can be difficult to break free.”

Benzodiazepines and Z drugs are more likely to be effective when taken as a one-off dose or short-term treatment for a few weeks. You should not take them every day or take them for longer than four weeks.

If you continue taking these drugs beyond a few weeks, they are less likely to work because your brain can get used to their effects, Mind says. If you take them regularly and for a long time, you may develop a dependency on them and experience physical withdrawal symptoms if you stop or reduce your dose.

Withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepines and Z drugs include:

  • Abdominal cramps

  • Anxiety (including physical symptoms like muscle tension, tight chest, fast heartbeat, sweating, trembling or shaking)

  • Blurred vision

  • Concentration problems

  • Dizziness

  • Face and neck pain, as well as sore eyes and sore tongue

  • Headaches

  • Increased sensitivity to light, noise, touch and smell

  • Loss of appetite

  • Depression

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Panic attacks

  • Sleep problems

The longer you take these medications, the more difficult it will be to stop and the worse your withdrawal symptoms may be.

In order to safely stop taking the drugs, you should reduce your dose gradually to reduce the risk of withdrawal symptoms. You should get advice from your doctor about how to safely withdraw from the medication, and speak to others about it through local or online support groups, or friends and family.

Watch: Insomnia Linked With a 69% Greater Risk of Heart Disease, New Study Suggests