Pillow talk: Costs and benefits of using sleeping pills

October 5, 2015

Pillow talk: The cost and benefits of sleeping pills

Swallow a pill, succumb to sleep. If you're a chronic or occasional insomniac, it sounds too good to be true — and it usually is. While sleeping pills do help many occasional users get a little extra shut-eye (the operative word is little), others find their side effects worse than losing sleep.

Pillow talk: Costs and benefits of using sleeping pills

Understanding addiction

Yes, they are known to be psychologically, not physically, addictive. Clinical studies — many of which are admittedly short, lasting only several months at the longest — show that sleeping pills are generally not physically addictive.

  • Your body doesn't crave them the way a junkie craves the next fix. Most doctors' experiences with the drugs show this as well.
  • Sleeping pills can, however, be very psychologically additive, says Dr. Karl Doghramji, a sleep expert at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. "All of these sleeping medications can cause rebound insomnia," he explains. In other words, if you take the drug for too many days in a row, it may be even harder to fall asleep when you stop.

Rebound insomnia can lead people to continually experiment with new drugs and dosages as their insomnia persists. Interestingly, the condition is more likely in people who take sleeping pills with short half-lives.

Dangers associated with sleeping pills

As with any medication, there are risks involved, especially for the elderly and for those who are seriously ill. It's rare, but sleeping pills can put these vulnerable folks into a deep sleep — permanently." Most sleeping pills have the possibility of causing respiratory suppression," explains Dr. Doghramji.

Beware: In plain English, enough of the drug will cause you to stop breathing. Many varieties of sleeping pills contain a benzodiazepine, a drug that depresses your central nervous system. Frail people who aren't in good health can be especially susceptible to the drug's sedating effects, and their central nervous systems may shut down.

As long as a person doesn't overdose on sleeping pills, the risk of respiratory suppression is usually a worry only for elderly or extremely sick people who are already in a weakened state. They should take sleep aids only under a doctor's strict supervision.

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