A sleep aid prescribed to treat insomnia, Lunesta (eszopiclone) is a non-benzodiazepine, or “z-drug,” medication. These types of drugs are thought to work by acting on levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and their receptors in the central nervous system. GABA is a kind of natural sedative produced by the brain that slows down cardiovascular functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure, while lowering anxiety and muscle tension and thus promoting sedation.
Z-drugs like eszopiclone were initially heralded as being “safer” than their benzodiazepine counterparts; however, the Journal of Medical Toxicology warns that their significant hypnotic, long-acting sedative, and adverse effects make them potentially dangerous. In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published warnings of next-day impairment after taking Lunesta to sleep at night and recommended that the daily dosage be lowered. Lunesta may also be abused (taken outside of a legitimate prescription or used without medical necessity), which can increase the possible side effects and risk factors. Lunesta does have the potential for various negative side effects, both when abused and when taken as prescribed.
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Mental Impairment and Psychological Risks of Lunesta
Lunesta is designed to help a person fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, thus combating symptoms of insomnia. As a powerful sedative-hypnotic drug, eszopiclone has the longest half-life, and therefore longest duration of action, of all the z-drugs. It also has the greatest residual effect. This means that Lunesta stays in the body and remains active in the bloodstream for at least six hours and likely closer to eight hours. It also works fast. For these reasons, it is recommended to take Lunesta right before bed and only when a person has at least 7-8 hours to stay sleep.
Individuals taking Lunesta have reported engaging in activities while they were technically asleep and then having no memory of them the next day. Driving, eating, talking on the phone, and having sex while asleep and under the influence of Lunesta are all possible risk factors of taking this drug, the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) warns. Lunesta can make a person feel dizzy and drowsy even the next day. Increased aggression, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, confusion, and even hallucinations are potential side effects of Lunesta as well.
As a central nervous system depressant, Lunesta also carries a significant risk for overdose when abused, especially if mixed with other depressant substances, such as alcohol, opioids, or benzodiazepines. When abused, the drug can cause a euphoric “high” similar to benzodiazepines, as well as extreme drowsiness, lack of motor coordination, mental confusion, an inability to make sound decisions, increased risk-taking behaviors, poor judgment, amnesia, hallucinations, and significant mental impairment. Heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and body temperature can drop, and a person abusing Lunesta may lose consciousness, slip into a coma, or suffer life-threatening consequences.
Potential Physical Side Effects of Lunesta
In addition to the mental impairment and psychological side effects of Lunesta, the prescribing information for the drug warns that there are several possible physical side effects to taking the drug, which include:
- Chest pain
- Dry mouth
- Joint pain
- Stomach ulcers
- Skin issues
- Kidney pain
- Appetite fluctuations
- Respiratory infections
- Pink eye (conjunctivitis)
- Frequent urination
- Headaches and migraines
- Breast enlargement or engorgement
- Swelling of legs, arms, hands, or feet (peripheral edema)
Side effects of Lunesta appear to be more prevalent and severe in the elderly population as this demographic may be more sensitive to the effects of a sedative-hypnotic drug, which may stay active in their systems for longer as well. Increased rate of falls, accidents, and impaired cognition are serious risk factors of Lunesta use in people aged 65 and older; therefore, a lower dosage is recommended for seniors.
Lunesta is not intended to be used long-term, and if insomnia persists after a week to 10 days of taking the drug, there is high likelihood that a co-occurring disorder is also present. Use or abuse of Lunesta can carry a wide range of side effects; therefore, the drug should only be taken while under the direct supervision of a trained healthcare professional.