I want to share 3 risks of using sleeping pills. Sleeping pills are meant to help us sleep, however, they are really only meant to be used on a very short term basis. There are a few different kinds of sleeping pills and how they act on the body differ. For the purposes of this blog, I am going to be addressing how sleeping pills impact your sleep overall if you take them on a consistent basis. The types of drugs I am generally referring to are sedatives, benzodiazepines, and antihistamines, which are found in most over the counter sleep aids. Zolpidem, or Ambien, also has risks that I will discuss with the exception of the first risk addressed.
Sleeping pills taken over time actually result in poorer quality sleep. When taking a sleeping pill you actually tend to sleep more shallow and get more stage 2 sleep vs. the deeper more restorative sleep of stages 3 and 4. When you are not getting as much sleep in the deeper stages of sleep, you wake up feeling less refreshed than if you were getting a natural nights sleep without the drug. The shallow sleep caused by sleeping pills can also lead to more awakenings during the night. While they help you sleep it is the quality of sleep that suffers. Ambien does not seem to have this effect on deep sleep, however, it could lead to other undesirable outcomes… such as the infamous night eating that some experience.
Another risk of sleeping pills is their impact on you the next day. After taking a sleeping pill a portion of the medication continues to be present in your body. The hang over feeling you get from a sleeping pill is evidence of this. Research looking at performance the day after taking a sleeping pill show that performance on mental and motor tasks are poorer the day after taking a sleeping pill vs. a day after insomnia. The reason for this is that the drug impacts these systems and how you respond. This effect can be experienced with natural sleep aids as well.
Dependence is also a risk factor of sleeping pills. As stated earlier the use of sleeping pills is really only meant to be for a short period of time. Extended use of these drugs can lead to both tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance meaning you need more of the drug to have the same effect. Withdrawal meaning you feel an effect when you no longer use the drug and if you start using the drug again that effect is diminished. For sleeping pills the withdrawal is called rebound insomnia.
Rebound insomnia is what happens when someone who has been taking sleeping pills to treat their insomnia stops taking the pills and finds that their insomnia is much worse than it was before they started taking the pills. This is devastating for those who unknowingly start taking sleeping pills thinking they are doing the right thing for their insomnia then come to find out that it has made it worse.
Safe sleeping pill use is taking them infrequently and on an as needed basis. A particularly stressful event such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or trauma may warrant sleeping pill use, but again the use should be no longer than 2 weeks. Even better is taking them only once in a while if you feel the need. Sleeping pills should not be taken every night as they do involve risks, with one major risk being the development of even worse insomnia! Just a tid bit about sleeping pills. Until next time… Dr. B
Perl, J. (1993). Sleep Right in Five Nights: A clear and effective guide for conquering insomnia. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Danforth, M. (2018). Treating Insomnia: Evidence-based strategies to help your clients sleep. Presentation, New Jersey.