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How to Use Sleeping Pills Safely

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Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders—it affects nearly 1 in 3 adults. Sleeping pills are commonly used to treat insomnia. When used properly, sleep aids can help you fall asleep quickly, stay asleep, and get good-quality restorative sleep. However, many people develop unsafe habits when using sleeping pills. That’s why it is important to know how to use sleep aids appropriately to obtain the most benefits while minimizing the side effects. Please continue reading to learn more about safe practices when taking sleeping pills and how to reduce the risks of side effects of these medications.

Is it bad to take sleeping pills for insomnia? 

Sleeping pills are a very effective treatment for insomnia. However, they can be habit-forming and carry a risk of side effects. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends using other techniques to promote sleep prior to using sleep aids to treat insomnia. 
 Sleep hygiene (habits that promote good sleep) and cognitive behavioral therapy (behavior changes) are the first lines of treatment for chronic insomnia. However, with that said, a short course of sleep medications can be extremely beneficial in managing acute insomnia while a person learns to practice sleep hygiene and develop healthy behaviors.

Is it safe to take sleep aids every night?

Experts recommend using sleeping pills as a short-term remedy. They are best used for temporary insomnia, such as jet lag or situational emotional stress like a divorce or death in the family.

Sleep aids should not be used long-term. There is limited evidence regarding safety and efficacy when being used for more than 4 weeks. Daily use of sleep medications can negatively affect sleep stages and sleep quality. Long-term use of sleep medication has even been linked to a higher risk of mortality. 

It is worth remembering that you can develop a tolerance to sleeping pills, meaning that you will need higher doses to get the same effect over time. Also, sleep aids can be habit-forming if used daily for the long term. Many people develop an addiction to sleeping medication and experience withdrawal symptoms, such as rebound insomnia, irritability, anxiety, and strange dreams when they try to stop using them. 

What are the risks of taking a sleeping pill?

Most people can take a sleeping pill without major problems. However, like all medications, they can cause side effects, the most common being next-day confusion and grogginess, headaches, dry mouth, and nausea. In some individuals, sleeping pills can cause more serious side effects, such as rebound insomnia (difficulty sleeping after you stop taking the sleeping aids). 

Sleeping medications can interact with other drugs, such as antidepressants, opiates, and alcohol which can result in dangerous interactions, causing respiratory depression (slowed breathing) that can potentially lead to death. An overdose of sleeping pills may lead to delirium, problems with breathing and circulation, and death.

Rarely, sleeping pills can cause complex sleep behaviors like walking, driving, or making phone calls while asleep. Some of these complex sleep behaviors can be dangerous and lead to injuries or even death. The Food and Drug Administration has added boxed warnings on some prescription sleeping pills due to the risk of serious injuries from sleepwalking.

How long do sleeping pills take to kick in?

The onset of sleep aids depends on numerous factors, including the type of sleeping pill, the presence of food in the stomach, metabolism, body size, and other medical histories. In general, you can expect to fall asleep around 8 to 20 minutes faster than you would without the medicine. On average, you will get about 30-40 minutes of additional sleep with prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids.

Is it hard to wake up after taking sleeping pills?

Sleeping pills are not anesthetics. Most of the time, you would wake up naturally after taking them. However, it is important to time your sleep medicine properly to allow a full seven to eight hours of sleep. If you take a sleeping pill and wake up after only a few hours, you will likely feel groggy, off-balance, and confused.

How do I take a sleep aid safely?

Prior to initiating any type of sleep aid, you should consult your doctor first. This will ensure that you are diagnosed correctly for your trouble sleeping with either insomnia or some other sleep disorder. Your doctor will also provide you with the appropriate treatment and guidance so that you get the most benefits while minimizing the side effects of the medication. Here are some things to keep in mind when using sleep aids. 

Choosing a sleep medication

There are different types of prescription sleeping pills, including benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax), Z-drugs (Ambien, Sonata, Lunesta), antidepressants, and dual orexin receptor antagonists (Dayvigo), as well as OTC sleep aids like melatonin and Benadryl. Some sleep medications help with falling asleep faster while others help with staying asleep and reducing awakenings in the middle of the night. Your doctor will ask you about your sleep patterns in order to guide you to the most beneficial sleep aid. Be sure to tell your doctor about your health conditions and any other medications, including herbal remedies, supplements, and recreational drugs that you take. Interactions between sleeping pills and other drugs can be extremely harmful.

Taking a sleep medicine

Sleep medications should be taken right before bedtime. Taking them too early can interfere with activities in the evening hours. Also, going to bed soon after taking a sleep aid can help prevent complex sleep behaviors like sleepwalking. Keep in mind that your sleeping pill may take longer to kick in if it is taken with food. It is advisable to avoid starting treatment for insomnia before an important event because sleep aids may cause unexpected side effects. 

Dosing sleeping pills appropriately

Older adults and women tend to metabolize sleep medications more slowly and usually require lower doses. It is also recommended that pregnant and breastfeeding women avoid OTC and prescription sleeping pills because of their unknown effects on the fetus and infant.

Avoiding sleeping pills in high-risk individuals

The use of sleep aids carries additional risks for people with mental health disorders, seizures, breathing difficulties, low blood pressure, liver disease, and kidney problems. The use of sleeping pills in these individuals should be avoided as much as possible without a doctor’s supervision.

Avoiding sleep medications before certain activities

Experts at the National Sleep Foundation recommend that you should avoid taking sleeping pills before driving, operating heavy machinery, or doing anything that requires your full attention and mental capacity. This is also true if you need to awaken during the night, for example, to catch a flight or care for a sick relative.  

Reporting side effects of sleep aids

Even over-the-counter sleep aids can cause serious side effects. For this reason, it is important to talk to your doctor before starting any OTC sleep aids. If your doctor gives you a prescription sleep aid, follow the instructions on dosage and timing carefully to minimize side effects. If you notice any side effects or have any concerns, talk to your doctor so that they can guide you toward the best course of treatment. 

References:

1. https://aasm.org/resources/factsheets/insomnia.pdf

2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/in-depth/sleeping-pills/art-20043959

3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27747767/

4. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/drugs/15308-sleeping-pills