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The truth about sleeping pills

The truth about sleeping pills
13 seeds

Written by Benjamin Semmens, Registered Nutritionist (BHSc)

Hey guys, welcome back to another edition of Friday Q&A, where our head nutritionist Ben answers your health and nutrition questions each week! 

This week’s question came from Max who was curious “Is there anything wrong with taking a sleeping pill?

To answer this question, let me first paint you a picture - it’s the middle of the night, you’re tossing and turning, and your mind just won’t stop racing. You’ve tried everything to get a good night’s rest, yet here you are lying wide awake in the middle of the night.

If you experience insomnia, you’re not alone! It’s estimated that insomnia affects around 1 in 10 Australian adults and is more common in women and older adults.  

Often, people will do almost anything to get some shut eye including taking over-the-counter and prescription sleeping pills. However, if you’re not getting sleep night after night this is a red flag that there may be a more serious underlying cause for your insomnia.

While sleeping pills are effective short term, they’ve also been linked to addiction, overdose, daytime grogginess, and the increased risk of death compared to people who don’t use them. That’s why sleeping pills are a last resort and should only be used for a very limited time if ever.

That doesn’t mean that you should never use a sleeping pill again, but you should at least consider the risk vs benefits and what other options you have. Sleeping pills are ok for a once off, but if you use them long term, they are likely to make your insomnia worse in the long run. For example, recent research has found that sleep medications are not linked to better sleep long term. 

In this blog you’ll learn about why sleeping pills may not be useful, how they could be doing you more harm than good, and some natural alternatives to help improve your sleep!

Congratulations to Max who won a $20 gift voucher just for asking Ben a question! You can send your questions to ben@13seeds.com.au 

Prescription sleep medications are not linked to better sleep

Prescription sleep medications may not be linked to better sleep long-term. A recent study in the British Medical Journal found that long-term prescription sleep medication use did not lead to better quality of sleep in middle-aged women in the US.

The study followed the sleep habits of 238 women taking sleep medication for insomnia, as well as 447 women not taking medication, who also had insomnia over a two-year period. The results from the study showed little to no difference in sleep quality for both groups of women. Researchers concluded that “the efficacy of long-term sleep medications should be re-evaluated.”

What does this study suggest? The use of using sleeping medications long-term may have relatively little effect and should be avoided. These findings have huge implications considering that an estimated 9 million Americans are currently relying on sleeping medications! (1)

Risks and side effects of sleeping pills:

All prescription drugs have some level of side effects, including sleeping pills. You should be aware of them to be able to make the decision whether you should or shouldn’t take sleeping pills.

The most common side effects of sleeping pills include drowsiness the following day, headaches, muscle aches, constipation, dry mouth, concentration issues, and increased risk of falls. 

There are also other risks of sleeping pills that include:

- Drug tolerance - overtime you may build up a tolerance to sleeping pills, meaning you need to take more and more, increasing the risk of side effects.

- Drug dependence – You may start to rely on sleeping pills to fall asleep, and without them may make getting sleep even harder causing addiction. 

- Withdrawal symptoms – if you stop taking the medication, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, and shaking.

- Drug interactions – Sleeping pills can interact with other medications. This could worsen side effects and can be extremely dangerous when taking with pain killers and other sedatives.

- Rebound insomnia – If you suddenly stop taking sleeping pills, your insomnia can become even worse.

- Hiding an underlying problem – You may have an underlying medical, mental health or sleep disorder that’s causing your insomnia that can’t be treated with sleeping pills (2).

Should I use sleeping pills?

If you desperately need sleep then using a sleeping pill as once in a blue moon is ok, but what if there was a way to get immediate sleep with minimal side effects? That’s where you can use natural sleep aids. Certain herbal supplements have been proven to work and have a very minimal risk of side effects. 

Natural sleeping aids

Valerian

Valerian is a sedating herb that’s sometimes referred to as “natures Valium” that has been used since Ancient Greece to treat insomnia and anxiety. Valerian is believed to work by increasing levels of the brain chemical GABA that has a calming effect (3, 4, 5). 

Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is lemon scented herb that comes from the same family as mint. Lemon balm contains a compound called rosmarinic acid that helps to prevent the breakdown of GABA in the brain that induces calming effects that can be beneficial for anxiety and sleep disorders like insomnia (6, 7, 8).

Passionflower

Passionflower is a popular herb that’s used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Passionflower works in a similar way to valerian by boosting levels of GABA in the brain that helps slow brain activity allowing you to relax and sleep better (9, 10).

Hops

Hops are the flowers of the hop plant Humulus Lupulus. You might know hops as the ingredient they add to beer but hops are also a mild sedative used for anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia. Hops can benefit your sleep by regulating serotonin (happy brain chemical), melatonin (sleep hormone) and GABA (11)

Take-home message

Getting sleep is essential, especially if you need to be on your game the following day. Reaching for a sleeping pill makes sense, but there are a bunch of risks and side effects that go along with taking them. Long term use of sleeping pills may be ineffective, suggesting the use of alternative treatments as a better option to improve your sleep. 

Certain natural sleep aids have been proven to work and have very low risk of side effects. If you are experiencing insomnia night after night, speak to your doctor to assess if there is an underlying cause.

If you have any questions or need support with your health, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at ben@13seeds.com.au 

Disclaimer:

This article does not constitute as medical advice and does not take into consideration your personal circumstances. Please see your medical professional before implementing the above.

References: 

  1. https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/11/5/e045074.full.pdf
  2. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/sleeping-pills-and-natural-sleep-aids.htm
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18602406/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10411208/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20042323/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15272110/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4245564/
  8. https://content.iospress.com/articles/mediterranean-journal-of-nutrition-and-metabolism/mnm4-3-09
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31714321/
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18499602/
  11. https://www.actahort.org/members/showpdf?booknrarnr=848_19
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