On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness news for all Oklahomans.

What You Should Know About Sleep Aids


Posted in

More than a third of Americans suffer from insomnia or poor sleep. For many people, this sleep deprivation drives them to try sleeping pills. While medications can help many people achieve sleep, it’s important to use them only as a short-term solution for sleeping woes. Sleep aids can have dangerous side effects which you need to know before you take them.

What are sleep aids?

Sleep aids, or sleeping pills, belong to a class of drugs called “sedative hypnotics.” These medications induce and maintain sleep and generally break down into two types: barbiturate sedatives and non-barbiturate sedatives, including benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines.

Barbiturate sedatives affect the central nervous system. They cause intense sedation and are occasionally prescribed as sleeping pills, but are more commonly used in anesthesia. Barbiturates can be addictive and have strong withdrawal symptoms. It is important to use the correct dose of barbiturates since a relatively small overdose may lead to coma or death. Examples of barbiturates include Nembutal, Amytal and Seconal. Well-known benzodiazepine sedatives include Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Restoril, Halcion and Librium. Benzodiazepines have a variety of uses, which include inducing sedation and sleep, relieving anxiety, agitation, and muscle spasms, and preventing seizures. With these drugs, there may be issues of toxicity and abuse; while these can be used as sleep aids, they can be addictive and are not recommended as a long-term solution for falling asleep.

Non-benzodiazepines like Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep by binding to receptors in the brain. Although more gentle than benzodiazepines, these drugs, which have a short half-life and less chance of causing dependency, still carry a habit-forming risk, and studies of this class of drugs have shown memory loss and amnesia.

Finally, there are sleep aids that affect sleep-related hormones in the brain like melatonin and orexin. These non-habit forming, over-the-counter supplements raise your melatonin levels to put you in a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep. But melatonin supplements may raise blood-sugar levels and increase blood pressure levels in people taking some hypertension medications.

Why do people use a sleep aid?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the official description of insomnia is "difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even when a person has the chance to do so." People with insomnia can feel dissatisfied with their sleep and usually experience one or more of the following symptoms: fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances and decreased performance in work or at school.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that one in six adults with a diagnosed sleep disorder like insomnia, and one in eight adults with trouble sleeping, report using sleep aids. Sleeping pills are usually prescribed as a short-term solution to provide relief, but it is inadvisable to use them as a long-term solution. Often, a medical condition or sleep disorder is causing the insomnia and can be treated without the use of sleep aids.

What are the side effects of sleep aids?

Like all medication, sleep aids have side effects. Those with asthma and other breathing problems, like emphysema, may be at higher risk of sleeping pill-related side effects. If you experience any of these side effects, call your doctor.

  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased appetite
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Vivid or unusual dreaming
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty focusing attention
  • Impairment
  • Difficulties balancing

A more serious side effect is sleepwalking, which is considered a parasomnia behavior. Parasomnia is any behavior or actions taken while asleep and unaware. Other than sleepwalking, parasomnia behavior can include sleep eating and even sleep driving. Taking more medication than you are prescribed can increase the risk of parasomnia behavior.

How addictive are sleeping pills?

Over time, while using sleeping aids or pills, your body becomes used to the drug. This leads many to take a higher dosage to achieve the same effects. A high dosage can affect your breathing -- depressed breathing during sleep can cause death. Experts recommend sleeping pills be taken for no longer than seven to 10 days.

As mentioned, different types of sedatives will have different levels of risk for addiction or habit-forming behavior. Benzodiazepines and barbiturate sedatives are especially addictive and need to be closely monitored by a healthcare professional, as they can easily be misused.

Is it dangerous to take sleeping pills?

If misused, sleeping pills can be dangerous. Never take more than the recommended dosage of a sleep aid or take prescription sleeping medication unless you are under a doctor’s care. Taking more than you are prescribed can increase the risk of parasomnia behavior.

Openly communicate with your doctor if you’re experiencing any side effects from medication, mild or serious. If you think you're experiencing dependency on a sleep aid, seek professional guidance from your physician.

If you aren’t experiencing great sleep, visit the INTEGRIS Sleep Disorders Center of Oklahoma for a comprehensive review of your sleep health.

Subscribe to the INTEGRIS Health On Your Health blog

Subscribe for regular emails full of useful and interesting Oklahoma-centric health and wellness info, from the doctors and health experts at INTEGRIS Health.