Sleeping pills are an option that many people use to help them fall asleep. These pills can be prescriptions, over-the-counter, or some kind of herbal or other natural supplement.
According to the CDC, it is estimated that 50-70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders or deprivation, and about 4% of adults use prescription sleeping pills. For those Americans who have a diagnosed sleeping disorder, sleeping pill use increases to about 16% (source here).
The obvious possible benefits to using a sleeping pill include increased drowsiness, falling asleep faster, and staying asleep longer.
But personally, I have never used a sleeping pill of any kind, and likely never will. The thought of using a pill to help me sleep is very scary, and in this post I want to give an in-depth explanation as to why.
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What Are Sleeping Pills?
“‘Sleeping pills’ refers to a generic term used to describe both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications” (Cleveland Clinic). They are used to increase drowsiness and promote relaxation, but how do they do this?
Sleeping pills are a class of drug known as benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines (which are also hypnotics and sedatives) cause your brain and central nervous system to slow down their functions. They do this by increasing a brain chemical known as GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) which reduces your brain activity in the areas of emotion, memory, and even some essential functions.
These effects are clearly beneficial for people who suffer from general nervousness, anxiety, and seizures. And it’s also clear why doctors would prescribe these drugs to someone who has trouble sleeping because it causes your body to enter a reduced state of internal activity, which is a precursor to falling asleep. In other words: relaxation equals sleep.
Why Might you be prescribed sleeping pills?
(Read the disclaimer at the end of this article, but in summary: I am not a medical professional and this is not medical advice!)
If you are communicating openly with your doctor or health care provider about your sleep issues, it is very likely that they will initially NOT prescribe a sleeping pill. It is much better for your body, and overall health, to avoid using an external chemical to help you fall asleep.
Doctors often first recommend non-medicinal approaches to combating sleep difficulties. These approaches can include:
- Avoiding caffeine
- Relaxing activities before bed (reading, yoga, etc.)
- Making sure your sleeping environment is dark and cool in temperature
- Avoiding naps, especially in the late afternoon
These methods are obviously preferred to using medicine because they allow your body to relax naturally. If, however, you try a natural relaxation routine and your sleep is not improving, your doctor may prescribe a sleeping pill.
Doctors will usually prescribe the smallest dose possible, and have you take the pill for the shortest amount of time possible. This is to make sure that your body does not have a negative reaction to the medicine, as well as to avoid any dependence on the drug. Additionally, your doctor will probably have you continue using natural relaxation methods alongside the prescription to promote a healthy sleep routine.
Now that we’ve gotten some of the science and background information out of the way, let’s talk about why sleeping pills scare me…
First, a personal story…
As a freshmen in high school during the spring semester, I suddenly developed seasonal allergies (pollen, etc.). I had never before been allergic to anything (no food allergies, nothing), but all of a sudden I had the reddest, itchiest eyes and the worst sneezing attacks I had ever had in my life.
That summer I was accepted to attend a young composer’s program at the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music, where for one week I was taught by incredible faculty and given tools and skills that I still use to this day as a professional musician. But I was still dealing with my brand new seasonal allergy problem, and hadn’t yet gone to see a doctor. So I packed Benadryl with me to take in case I needed it.
I needed it…badly. I had to take the Benadryl because if I didn’t, my eyes would swell and become even more red from itching them. But there’s a downside to Benadryl (and other antihistamines), and that is that they can cause drowsiness.
So there I was, 15 years old, sitting in a class that’s being taught by a well-respected music theorist, and I am visibly falling asleep in class, and the professor noticed. How do I know he noticed? Well, when you’re one of fourteen students and you’re the only person whose eyes are closing and head is falling down only to suddenly snap back up from waking myself up…trust me, it’s obvious.
I didn’t yet have sleeping problems, but the feeling of being completely out of control of what my body was doing really scared me. After an entire week of constantly falling asleep against my will, I stopped taking Benadryl and got prescription allergy medications. To this day, I still have not taken Benadryl again.
(Note: Benadryl and other antihistamines are not benzodiazepines, but can be prescribed as an alternative due to their sedative qualities.)
Common side effects of sleeping pills
As with anything health related, there are potential risks and side effects that need to be discussed with your doctor. Arguably the most common side effect of sleeping pills is prolonged drowsiness. Drowsiness may remain the next morning, which can not only make you wake up feeling tired, but could make it dangerous for you to drive, operate heavy machinery, or just to simply stay awake at work.
For me, recalling my Benadryl experience, I am unwilling to feel out of control. Luckily I was just sitting in a classroom and not putting anything in jeopardy (except maybe the professor’s ego). But just like you should never drink and drive, you should never drive tired.
Another possible side effect is oversleeping. I’m sure a lot of people think sleeping too much doesn’t sound like that big of a problem, but sleeping too much isn’t healthy just as sleeping to little isn’t healthy. As they say, too much of a good thing…
But consider the real-world consequences from oversleeping: being late to work, missing class, missing public transportation, etc. And when your day starts from behind, you feel rushed and stressed which can prevent you from falling asleep that night due to increased anxiety and a higher blood pressure. And there could be even more severe consequences, like being fired from your job.
The other side effect I will mention here is the possibility of developing a dependence or addiction to the drug. I can already hear you saying, “I won’t become addicted to sleeping pills,” but imagine this:
You start taking sleeping pills as prescribed by your doctor…and they work! You haven’t fallen asleep this quickly in years! But then your prescription finishes and you can’t fall asleep the first night you aren’t taking the sleeping pill. Is it that far of a stretch to equate good sleep with taking sleeping pills?
This is, of course, highly over-simplified and exaggerated, but people do become addicted to sleeping pills. It’s estimated that 42 thousand Americans are addicted to and/or abuse sleeping pills (source here). And if you aren’t convinced that developing a dependence on sleeping pills isn’t a real possibility, just consider how many people are addicted to coffee and can’t function (often literally) without their morning coffee. Who’s to say you wouldn’t develop that same kind of addiction to sleeping pills?
Finally, there are long-term side effects, such as memory and other cognitive issues, that can arise from the use of sleeping pills.
This was more of a fact-based argument, and less of a personal discussion as to why I don’t use sleeping pills, but to me the possible negative side effects are frightening enough to never want to use a sleeping pill (coupled with my Benadryl experience).
Obviously the negative side effects are just possibilities, and your doctor will help determine what is best for you as an individual. You may not experience any negative side effects, and there’s a chance taking a sleeping pill will truly help you.
Please keep in mind that what I discussed today has largely centered around prescription pills and not natural supplements like melatonin or other herbal supplements, but there are always risks involved when taking something to help you sleep.
And please, before you attempt to take anything to help you sleep, first consult your doctor. Just because I am an advocate for natural sleeping techniques doesn’t mean that your doctor won’t have different, better advice for your health.
Sources (click to be taken to source article):
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