Wake Up To the Facts About Sleep Meds

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Tossing and turning? The inability to fall asleep, or to stay asleep, can negatively impact your health in lots of ways. Family physician Christopher Lauricella, DO, explains.  

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Popping a sleeping pill may seem like an easy answer. But before taking any kind of sleep aid, check with your doctor or health care provider. She’ll review your medical history – including drugs you’re taking now – and talk about your sleep problems before possibly recommending any prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medicine to help you sleep.

Most sleep medicines are for short-term treatment.

Most sleep medicines are for short-term treatment, although some people with severe chronic insomnia may benefit from longer treatment.


Some dietary supplements claim to help you sleep and can appear to be a low-risk place to start to restore your slumber. But beware. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dietary supplements as it does medicine, it’s unclear if these products are safe or if they work. And keep in mind that “natural” does not always equate to “safe.”

Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids

For the occasional sleepless night, OTC sleep aids may help. But they, too, are not without watch outs:

  • Most contain antihistamines, which are not safe for some people.
  • Some are ineffective.
  • Some can have unpleasant side-effects, such as dry mouth or dizziness.
  • There’s no data about the safety of taking OTC sleep aids long term.
  • Alcohol heightens their effect. It can also interact adversely with some other drugs.
  • Your sleeplessness may be a sign of another medical problem. Using a pill to get some shuteye doesn’t address what’s causing your insomnia in the first place.
  • Keep in mind that a safe dosage for a woman might be lower than that for a man.

Prescription Sleep Aids

Going without sleep brings on its own hazards. So your doctor may prescribe one of these medications to help you get the rest your body craves:

  • Benzodiazepines. These enhance the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter that calms brain activity. Different benzodiazepines vary in how quickly they take effect and how long they remain active in your body.
  • Nonbenzodiazepines. While benzodiazepines affect multiple brain receptors, the nonbenzodiazepines act only on a few. As a result, they tend to cause fewer side effects.
  • Antidepressants. Many people with depression also experience insomnia. Taking an antidepressant may help relieve symptoms of both problems.
  • Melatonin. Your body naturally makes a hormone called melatonin, which helps control sleep. Drugs or supplements try to boost levels of this chemical before bedtime.

Use prescription sleep aids with care. They may:

  • Become habit-forming
  • Mask medical problems actually causing the insomnia
  • Interact with your other medicines and cause serious health problems
  • Cause grogginess
  • Make your sleeping problem worse

Uncommon side-effects include severe allergic reactions, facial swelling, high blood pressure and other problems. Carefully read your patient information sheet from the pharmacy.

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