Everything You Need to Know About Sleeping Medication

Man lying awake at night, contemplating sleeping medication

Man lying awake at night, contemplating sleeping medication | iStock.com

When bypassing commercial breaks through a streaming service isn’t an option, you’re bound to see at least one advertisement for some sort of sleeping medication. It almost feels strange not to have a stash in your medicine cabinet. These pills have become so commonplace that many people have taken to ingesting a few prior to a long flight. While they offer a seemingly quick fix for insomnia, it’s really not a good idea to start a sleeping medication regimen without doing some research.

Prescription pills are first up. They generally fall under two categories: benzodiazepines and nonbenzodiazepines. The former are actually medications primarily used to treat anxiety but, according to Consumer Reports, the FDA has approved a number of them to treat insomnia and are among the older choices on the market. While many have expressed concern over the potential for dependency, a more recent review of benzodiazepines reported it’s typically more of a problem for those with a history of substance abuse. The researchers did, however, acknowledge a potential link between benzodiazepines and cognitive decline.

Since so many non-benzodiazeines now exist, they’re generally the more common choice. Most of the brands you recognize also fall under this category, including Ambien and Lunesta. Mayo Clinic explains, while they’re generally considered safe, they still carry some risk of dependency and other side effects, such as memory problems and daytime drowsiness. Though these may sound like minor problems, they’re still cause for concern. One study published in the American Journal of Public Health found those who recently started taking sleeping pills were more likely to be involved in a car accident.

young woman sitting up in bed at night because she can't sleep

Woman sitting up in bed with insomnia | iStock.com

Research published in 2014 has even suggested those who use these medications experience a significantly greater risk of mortality. The reason for this link isn’t understood, though. Skeptics point out this is an example of correlation rather than causation. Still, it’s not the only study to demonstrate the association.

With either of these types of sleeping pills, it’s important to remember that many aren’t intended to be used every day. Your doctor will recommend a designated amount of time when he or she writes the prescription. If you think a longer period might be necessary, talk to your doctor before making the decision on your own. Again, there is some risk of dependency. Furthermore, abruptly stopping usage after taking sleeping medication for an extended period of time may lead to withdrawal symptoms, according to Informed Health Online.

For those who don’t want to dive into prescriptions, over-the-counter options are also plentiful. The most common types are antihistamines. While these types of medications have traditionally been used to treat allergies, more and more of them are being marketed as sleep aids. While these pills are among the safest options, they bear the same risk of next-day drowsiness. Dr. Lisa Shives, a sleep specialist, tells Real Simple the risk of feeling groggy also increases with age. If you’re new to these medications, you might want to hold off until the weekend.

Source: iStock

That afternoon coffee  might not be the best idea | iStock.com

Before you consider any type of pill, prescription or not, take a look at your lifestyle. The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute (NHLBI) recommends limiting tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol as well as checking how your other medications may interfere with sleep. Don’t forget about unplugging at the end of the day, either. Many experts have pointed to smartphones and other screens as culprits behind sleeping difficulties, so it’s best to power down these devices about an hour before bed time.

If none of these small changes seem to make a difference, you can also try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The same article from the NHLBI explained these sessions focus on teaching good sleep habits and offer strategies to cope with insomnia. The great thing about CBT is it teaches you methods you’ll be able to use for the rest of your life while a pill doesn’t provide a long-term solution.

The question of whether or not sleeping medication can be both safe and effective largely depends on the individual. In any case, looking for cures that don’t involve popping a pill is always going to be the best start. You may find learning to quiet your mind at the end of the day is all you need to finally get some sleep.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec