Sleeping pills have a twofold purpose: They help people fall asleep and stay asleep for the night.
They are also known as tranquilizers and depressants and include barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep medications. Because they slow brain activity, they can help a person sleep and may treat anxiety.
In addition to many prescribed medications like Ambien, Doral, Estazolam, Flurazepam, Halcion, Lunesta, and Seconal, sedatives also are sold over-the-counter and include options like Benadryl and Unisom. They are also part of many cold or headache combinations.
Many of these drugs, when prescribed, are commonly referred to as “Z-drugs” because they can help a person sleep. Because sleep is vital to physical and mental health, these kinds of sedatives can be helpful, but they also carry some risks.
One such risk: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says such medications are not recommended for people with complex sleep behaviors. Those are more complicated activities usually associated with being awake, like sleepwalking and sleep-driving.
Because sedatives can be habit-forming and sleep problems can result from other issues, including anxiety, depression, or alcohol and substance use, medical professionals suggest other routes (like handling anxiety, for example) before resorting to sleep drugs.
Insomnia is when a person has trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or getting quality sleep. It usually occurs despite opportunities to get a normal rest, and the patient’s daytime functioning is compromised due to poor sleep.
About one out of every four Americans experiences insomnia every year. (The majority recover, however.) Causes and symptoms include:
- Substances that affect sleep quality: These can be illicit or legal drugs (including alcohol or caffeine).
- Health problems: Physical pain, frequent bathroom trips, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, heart or lung diseases may all interfere with rest.
- Behavioral or mental health disorders. Depression, stress, and anxiety can lead to sleeplessness.
Sleeping Pills Half-Life
The half-life of a medication is the amount of time it takes for half of the dose to be metabolized and leave the bloodstream. If a drug has an 8-hour half-life, it will be halved (to 50%) in that time. In another eight hours, that 50% will reduce further, to 25%, and so on.
The exact half-life varies, too, because age, weight, genetics, and any health issues (like liver disease) will affect the process.
A shorter half-life means the drug in question works faster (and wears off faster). Conversely, a longer-half life means a medication takes longer to have an effect, but it also takes longer to wear off, possibly long past most beneficial use. (In terms of sleep aids, a long half-life may lead a person to wake up groggy, since the drug is still active in the system.)
The half-life of many sedatives varies widely. That’s something to consider when being prescribed a sedative. There are several options to combat anxiety and help a person drift to sleep, each with differing half-lives, anywhere from an hour to a couple of days. Examples include:
- Zaleplon, a hypnotic sold under the brand name Sonata to help people fall asleep, has a half-life of one hour.
- Alprazolam, a sedative and benzodiazepine (aka Xanax) used for anxiety and sleep disorders, has a half-life of about 11 hours.
- Diazepam (Valium), a benzodiazepine that helps anxiety and sleep, has a half-life of 20 to 50 hours.
- The antidepressant nortriptyline, also marketed as Pamelor, has a half-life of 28 to 31 hours.
How Long Do Sleeping Pills Last?
Because there are so many sleeping pill options, from over-the-counter to prescription only, the best way to answer the question, how long do sleeping pills stay in your system, is that it varies.
A drug’s half-life is one thing to consider. The shorter a half-life, the quicker it leaves the bloodstream. A good rule for figuring out how long medication or drug will stay in the blood is to multiply the half-life by five. So if a drug has a half-life of four hours, it’ll take 20 hours for it to mostly leave the body. (A trace amount may remain a while longer.)
Do Sleeping Pills Show Up in a Drug Test?
The drug test detection time for sleeping pills varies on several factors. That includes what is being tested (blood, urine, hair).
Most substances tend to exit the bloodstream first. If a drug is absorbed in fat tissues then the drug may be detected beyond the half-life via saliva or urine. Drugs can be detected in hair for longer periods, usually for at least 90 days. (Many tests will look at the past 90 days’ growth, or the 1.5 inches of hair closest to the scalp, to look for evidence of drug misuse.)
How Long Are Sleeping Pills Detectable in Urine
How long do sleeping pills stay in your urine? Urine test results can vary widely.
Certain drugs, like Diazepam, can linger in the body for weeks after last use. For others, a positive result means the medication could have been taken minutes ago, or several days prior.
Some medications, like Xanax or clonazepam (Klonopin), may not show up in a urine screen at all. Other drugs may produce a false positive. Those include the pain reliever naproxen or the antidepressant sertraline, so it’s a good idea to alert the lab of any prescription, OTC, or herbal supplements, to make sure nothing reads wrong.
Usually, after about a month (aside from hair), a person will screen clean if they’ve stopped using.
- fda.gov – Sleep Disorder (Sedative-Hypnotic) Drug Information
- fda.gov – Taking Z-drugs for Insomnia? Know the Risks
- fda.gov – Drug Safety Communications
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – A comparison of complex sleep behaviors with two short-acting Z-hypnosedative drugs in nonpsychotic patients
- medlineplus.gov – Medicines for sleep
- sleepfoundation.org – Insomnia
- penntoday.upenn.edu – One in four Americans develops insomnia each year
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Clinical Pharmacology in Sleep Medicine
- urmc.rochester.edu – Benzodiazepines (Urine)
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