Sleep is a foundation of good health. When I treat patients, I always emphasize the importance of sleep whether one is recovering from a common cold or from major surgery. Why is sleep so important? Your body requires 7 to 9 hours of rest every night in order to repair and renew all its systems.
When you don’t get enough sleep, you feel irritable, lack energy and are less able to cope with stressors. You may have tried lifestyle modifications like spending an hour before bed relaxing and unwinding, getting more exercise, or giving up caffeine after 4 p.m. If sleep is still a problem, you might turn to sleep aids. While these prescription and over-the-counter medications can be helpful to many, there is the possibility of becoming dependent on these substances.
What Sleep Aids Do
Various sleep aids may be obtained by prescription from your doctor. They work by helping you fall asleep or by helping you stay asleep. The most popular brand name drugs like Lunesta, Rozerem, Sonata, Halcion, Restoril and Ambien fall into a category of drugs known as hypnotics.
They suppress and slow the functioning of the nervous system and the brain. This results in impaired physical abilities and mental clarity. It also causes decreased heart rate and breathing, effectively pushing your body toward a state of sleep.
Most over-the-counter sleep aids contain antihistamines. By counteracting histamine, a chemical in the central nervous system, these sleep aids make you drowsy. Though these medicines may help with occasional sleeplessness, they become less and less effective when used repeatedly. They may interact with certain drugs and are not recommended if you have Parkinson’s, heart disease, are pregnant, or are breast-feeding.
The Danger of Addiction
I advise my patients to make every attempt to solve their sleep problems by modifying their lifestyle. The reason for this is that some of the effective prescription sleep aids are not suitable for long-term use, and many of them can be habit-forming. Ambien, a popular sleep aid, may become less effective after just two weeks of use. For many people, the effects of sleep aids linger the following day upon waking. Feeling groggy or “cloudy” is common.
In addition, there are many restrictions associated with these medicines. Because they impair your physical abilities, older people run the risk of falling if they awake during the night. People with impaired metabolisms or histories of various chronic diseases should not take sleeping aids. Serious consequences can result if these drugs are taken in combination with alcohol. The central nervous system can become so severely suppressed that coma or death may occur.
In many cases, addiction to sleep aids is due to the feeling of wellbeing that results from these drugs. Even with the best intentions, many people become dependent on sleep aids for this sense of calm. Here is my plan for avoiding or combating an addiction to sleep aids:
1) Take as directed – Never take more than your recommended dose, and only take it for as long as your doctor advises.
2) Use sleep aids as one prong of your treatment plan – Sleep aids can help people get through a difficult time by giving them much-needed rest. To avoid becoming dependent, use relaxation techniques, a change in your nighttime routine, and diet and exercise to improve sleeping habits.
3) Check in with your doctor – Schedule regular visits so you can keep him or her informed of side effects, like prolonged drowsiness, allergic reactions, sleep-walking, headaches or weight gain.
4) Discontinue safely – If you do find yourself becoming dependent on sleep aids, don’t quit cold turkey. With your doctors’ supervision, slowly taper off to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
While sleep aids help many people, awareness is key to avoiding dependence. You can use them healthfully if you follow your doctor’s recommendations and use the medication as directed. If you or someone close to you is addicted to sleep aids, reach out to a doctor, counselor, or family member. Recognizing a problem is the first step to getting help and becoming truly healthy.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.