Zoomer zzz’s… and nighttime pill popping

Research has shown that 9 out of 10 Canadians report having sleep problems — and failing to get enough sleep can seriously impact one’s health and quality of life. Many people who suffer from insomnia will turn to sleeping pills or other remedies, but is this a good idea? Here’s what to know about sleep aids.

Sleeping pills fall into four general categories.

Over the counter medication: The sleeping pills you can buy at the pharmacy tend to work well enough for the odd sleepless night here and there. Many of them contain antihistamines, which make most people drowsy (some people just take an allergy pill containing antihistamine instead). They become less effective over time, so are not really suitable for regular use. It’s also important to read the label information for each one, and to ask a pharmacist about potential drug interactions if taking other medication.

Benzodiazepine medications: Benzodiazepines depress or slow down the central nervous system (one example of this class of drug is Halcion). They are available by prescription only. These medications can be used for relief of depression, anxiety or sleeping difficulties which may be caused by life changes such as retirement, reduced financial resources, poor health, the loss of loved ones, or physical and social isolation. Concerns about these drugs include the risk that they are habit forming, and may cause sleepiness in the morning.

Nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic medications: Nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic medications are the latest in the sleeping pill arsenal (one example of this type is Ambien, which is also the number-one prescription sleeping pill in the United States). These drugs quiet the nervous system, which helps induce sleep. They are available by prescription only. The risk of side effects the next day are lower than the benzodiazepine class, but there is some concern that side effects may include “zombie-like” behaviour such as driving in one’s sleep.

Antidepressants: Some classes of antidepressant medication may ease insomnia when taken in lower doses. When insomnia is due to depression or anxiety, antidepressants can improve both conditions at the same time. These drugs are available only by prescription.

There is also a fifth alternative which is relatively newly available in Canada: melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the body which helps to regulate sleep. Melatonin supplements are synthetic versions of the natural hormone. Research has shown that it may well help people to get to sleep, although its effect on helping people to stay asleep is not as clear. However, the research is still out on melatonin when it comes to drug interactions and side effects.

Other supplements, such as valerian and chamomile, are herbal remedies which have not been proven to be effective.

Effects of sleeping pills

The Public Health Agency of Canada advises against using sleeping pills on a regular basis. Aging and severe illness can impact how these drugs react in the body.

Sleeping pills and tranquillizers may relieve anxiety and sleeping difficulties but, because they treat the symptoms of stress and not the cause, the relief is only temporary. They may help during a very stressful time and help to mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation long enough for an individual to find the energy to address the root cause. But they are not intended to be a substitute for natural sleep. So use them if you need to, but continue to work on finding natural ways to promote sleep.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Leigh Schindler

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