Are Sleeping Pills the ‘Cure’ for Insomnia?

For the 47 percent or more of Americans who report problems with insomnia, it’s certainly tempting to seek a “cure” in medication, specifically in prescription sleeping pills. At first, the results can be satisfying if not dramatic, but what about long term? Are sleeping pills a long-term solution to chronic sleep problems?

The answer most generally is “no.” These pills have side effects, can be habit-forming and can lose effectiveness over the long term due to one’s body getting used to them.

However, if you and your doctor decide to give sleeping pills a try, what’s in store for you? Let’s first look at the different types of sleeping pills available:

Most sleeping pills fall into the category of “sedative hypnotics.” Sedative hypnotics include benzodiazepines, barbiturates and various hypnotics. Benzodiazepines include Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Librium and are really anti-anxiety medications that can also induce drowsiness. Barbiturates depress the central nervous system and can cause sedation.  Newer drugs like Lunesta, Sonata and Ambien are sleep-inducting compounds that can be somewhat less habit-forming that barbiturates.

How about side effects?

Now if you suffer from asthma or COPD, sleeping pills are not for you, as they can make breathing more difficult. That’s a side effect you definitely don’t want to undergo. As for those without breathing issues, sleeping pill side effects vary individual to individual, but for the most part, side effects include dry mouth, daytime drowsiness (sleeping pill hangover), tingling in the arms and extremities, unusual dreams, changes in appetite, difficulty with balance, diarrhea, headache and heart burn — and more.

It also should be noted that some people are flat out allergic to sleeping pills, and if that’s the case, the experiment should end immediately.

Of course, the worse side effect is becoming hooked on these medications. That’s an outcome you certainly want to avoid, and it’s also why sleeping pills should never be more than a short-term “fix” in advance of a greater solution through treatment and/or life-style modifications. And again, long-term use of sleeping pills can see their effectiveness fade and/or disappear.

So if you’re among the 47-or-so percent of Americans suffering from insomnia, the best course — whether you use sleeping pills as a starting point or not — is to do a thorough sleep evaluation to determine if you’re suffering from any sleep disorder. If so, in-office, non-invasive treatments can often turn the corner for you. If no sleep disorder is found, then sleep modification in terms of adopting good sleep-hygiene methods is the best approach.

Bottom line: Get fully evaluated and get to the root cause of your sleep problems rather than glossing over the real issues by taking sleeping pills. Whatever your decision, however, make sure you do so in consultation with your family physician or sleep professional.

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