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Sleeping tablets and other insomnia treatments

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Insomnia has been around as long as sleep has. Some people even believe that William Shakespeare was an insomniac, writing as vividly as he did about sleeplessness, tossing and turning, and sleepwalking in plays like Hamlet and Macbeth. Today, he has millions of fellow sufferers.

According to the NHS, it’s estimated that one in three people have episodes of insomnia.

Sleeping pills are not risk-free and may not be ideal for everyone who has problems getting a good night's sleep.

Sleeping tablets may deal with symptoms of insomnia but not the underlying causes.

A good night's sleep

If a lack of refreshing sleep is affecting your life, seek medical advice. You'll be asked about sleep routines and keeping a sleep diary can help identify patterns of sleep problems.

Sleeping tablets are just one way to try to get better sleep. Before these are prescribed, GPs are asked to look at non-drug treatments. These include relaxation therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other ways to achieve what's known as better sleep hygiene, These can be as simple as not having coffee close to bed time, or having a relaxing bath.

Benzodiazepines, which include temazepam and loprazolam, and the newer prescription treatments, sometimes called the 'Z medicines', including zaleplon, zopiclone and zolpidem, are the preferred drugs the NHS prescribes for insomnia.

Benzodiazepines are a type of tranquilliser. They reduce anxiety, make a person feel more calm, help them relax and sleep. Doctors will consider these medicines for severe insomnia. Short-acting benzodiazepines are typically used for insomnia.

Z medicines are also short-acting.

The drugs work in similar ways to get people off to sleep. If one type doesn’t suit a person, another one may be recommended.

Melatonin is a natural hormone that helps regulate sleep or circadian rhythms. In the UK a medicine that contains melatonin may be prescribed for insomnia in people who are 55 or older. It is also a short-term insomnia treatment for up to three weeks.

Sleeping tablets are recommended for short-term treatment of insomnia of up to four weeks. Always take medicines as directed and seek medical advice if an extra dose is taken.

Always let your GP or pharmacist know about any other medicines you are taking, including supplements and herbal remedies, so they can check for interactions between treatments.

Doctors are also aware that sleeping tablets become less effective the longer a person uses them and there is a danger of becoming psychologically dependent on taking a pill to get to sleep.

Side effects of sleeping tablets

Benzodiazepines and 'Z' sleeping tablets can make a person feel unwell the next morning, similar to a hangover. There may also be drowsiness during the day. Caution needs to be taken while driving, or in a job using machines.

The melatonin-containing treatment side effects may also include irritability, dizziness, migraines, constipation, stomach pain or weight gain.

People with insomnia may also be risking their health by diagnosing themselves and taking over-the-counter sleeping remedies, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) warns. It found 51% of people took pills or herbal supplements without first seeking professional advice, despite the fact that insomnia is often the result of an underlying physical or mental health problem.

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Reviewed on November 10, 2014

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