According to the American Sleep Association, up to 70 million American adults suffer from some sort of sleep disorder. And more than one-third of Americans don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis, whether they have a diagnosed sleep disorder or not.
This is a big problem. In the short term, insufficient sleep affects judgment, mood, ability to learn and retain information, and may increase the risk of serious accidents and injury. In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even premature death.
Enter sleeping pills.
“Sleeping pills work on our brains by increasing drowsiness,” explains Henry Ford sleep specialist Meeta Singh, M.D. “Doctors prescribe sleeping pills designed to promote drowsiness, but they may also prescribe medication that are not targeting sleep, but still cause people to feel sleepy. For example, some anti-anxiety medications cause drowsiness. Either way, these medications can offer tremendous relief to people who have trouble falling asleep or maintaining restorative sleep.”
But sleeping pills are not a permanent solution. Instead, they’re a temporary treatment for people who suffer from insomnia, but are not effective for other sleep disorders, like narcolepsy and sleep apnea.
Here, Singh answers your most pressing questions about over-the-counter and prescription sleep aides.
Q: What is the role of sleeping pills?
Dr. Singh: Sleeping pills are hugely important – but before you resort to taking them to get more shut-eye, you should see a sleep specialist and get a complete evaluation. It’s important to determine why you’re not sleeping (or not sleeping well), and whether your issue will respond to medication. But sleeping pills are only a short-term fix (meaning six to 12 months). They’re not meant to be used long-term.
Q: How do people resolve insomnia over the long-term?
Dr. Singh: The best way to address sleep issues is with cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBTI. With this form of therapy, trained professionals teach you how to promote sleep and tackle insomnia issues, and the tools they provide can help enhance the quality of your sleep. Therapy may also help reduce anxiety related to not sleeping.
Q: What can you do if you’re sleep-deprived, but don’t have a sleep disorder?
Dr. Singh: Rather than taking sleep aids, people who are sleep-deprived should attempt to get more sleep and increase time spent in bed. That can include napping during the day, if that fits into your life and helps you meet your sleep needs.
The key to getting improving your sleep is practicing what is known as good sleep hygiene, including these habits:
- Wake up and go to bed at the same time each day, even on weekends.
- Exercise regularly and end exercise several hours before bedtime.
- Finish eating at least two to three hours before bedtime.
- Create a restful sleep environment by reducing noise, light and temperature extremes with ear plugs, window blinds, an electric blanket or air conditioner.
- Avoid alcohol close to bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine after 2 p.m.
- Shut down electronic devices two hours before bedtime and practice a nightly wind-down routine.
Q: Can you become addicted to sleeping pills?
Dr. Singh: Short answer: Yes. As your brain gets used to the medications, you may need larger doses to get the same effect, and you may become dependent on the medication to sleep. Plus, you may experience daytime side effects ranging from drowsiness to difficulty concentrating. Some people even experience significant side effects, such as sleep walking, sleep talking and during performing other activities during sleep, like driving or carrying out conversations, without forming any memory of this.
Q: How do you know if sleep medication is right for you?
Dr. Singh: You should only take sleeping pills under the direction of a sleep specialist. It’s important to realize that the sleeping pills currently on the market don’t induce a natural sleeping state. Instead, they sedate you. The two states are very different. In fact, research suggests that the electrical signature of sleep while taking medications is not the same as a normal night of sleep.
If you consistently have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and if the problem persists for more than a few weeks, pay a visit to your doctor. Getting sufficient shuteye will not only enhance your physical and mental performance, it may also add years to your life.