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Sharp Health News

Think twice about treating insomnia with sleeping pills

Dec. 5, 2016


If you find yourself tossing and turning at night hoping to catch some shut-eye, you’re not alone.

Insomnia is a common problem for many people. We should aim for getting 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep each night. If you're not reaching that sleep goal, you may have found that sleeping pills help. However, if your insomnia continues over a long period of time, medicinal sleep aids may not be the best answer.

“Sleeping pills are some of the most prescribed drugs in the U.S., partly because patients are requesting them from their doctors,” says Dr. David Hall, a double board-certified internal medicine and pediatrics doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Many people don’t realize that these drugs are not meant to be used for more than a few days at a time. Using them on a regular basis can increase the chance of becoming dependent on them in order to fall asleep.”

Studies show that sleeping pills are not as effective as you may think. On average, sleeping pills help people fall asleep about eight to 20 minutes faster than without them, but add less than 35 minutes to nightly sleep.

Sleeping pills also have side effects and risks associated with long-term use. “Sleeping pills are known to cause daytime drowsiness, dizziness and in some cases, hallucinations and sleepwalking or sleep-eating,” says Dr. Hall. “Over-the-counter sleep aids, such as antihistamines, also have risks, so it’s important that you ask your doctor if those are safe for you.”

Proper ways to use sleeping pills and alternative treatments for insomnia
Dr. Hall says that sleeping pills are most appropriate and helpful for short-term insomnia caused by a stressful event, such as a death in the family, divorce or major illness.

He adds that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which is a form of counseling, usually works just as well as sleeping pills and doesn’t have any of the risks. CBT helps by teaching you to develop new sleep habits, such as going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, and calming your mind before you go to sleep.

“If you’ve started CBT, sleeping pills may also help for a short time as you adjust to new, improved sleep habits,” he says.

Talk to your doctor if you have trouble sleeping. Your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist who can conduct a sleep study and observe you while you sleep. Sleep studies are primarily used to help determine if sleep apnea, another sleep problem, is causing your insomnia.

Common signs of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud or frequent snoring
  • Instances when breathing stops during sleep
  • Tiredness and sleepiness during the day

“If you have developed a habit of taking sleeping pills and want to stop, your doctor can help,” says Dr. Hall. “It may take days, weeks or months, but it is possible to safely break the habit of falling asleep using medicinal sleep aids.”

At Sharp Rees-Stealy, we want to empower you to make well-informed choices about your treatment options. That’s why we’ve made it our priority to support our doctors in helping you make smart and effective decisions by participating in Choosing Wisely®.

Choosing Wisely, an initiative of the ABIM Foundation, educates patients and doctors on selecting the most effective treatment available and avoiding unproductive, costly procedures. Sharp Rees-Stealy is the only medical group in Southern California to participate in this national campaign.

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