Health Library

July 2013

Be Smart About Sleep Aids

Sleep can be elusive. On some nights, we easily cozy up with it. On others, it may linger frustratingly out of reach. Struggling for some shuteye may entice you to try a sleep aid. Used properly, sleep aids can help. But they aren't without risks.

A wake-up call to safety

A recent government report documented a spike in emergency room visits related to the sleep drug zolpidem. You may know it better as Ambien. From 2005 to 2010, such visits jumped 220 percent. Half of those were the result of an interaction with another drug, often a pain reliever.

Photo of a man asleep in bed

Zolpidem and other similar prescription sleep aids, such as eszopiclone (Lunesta) and zaleplon (Sonata), treat insomnia. A person with insomnia may have trouble falling and staying asleep. The condition can last a few days or extend for weeks.

Like other drugs, sleep aids can have side effects. The most common are daytime grogginess, headache, and dizziness. More serious side effects may include severe allergic reactions and behavior like walking, eating, or driving in your sleep. These unusual activities are more likely to occur if you use such drugs excessively.

Proper use important

Sleep aids are available by prescription and over the counter. Although you may be able to buy some in a store, they can be just as harmful as prescribed drugs when not used properly. In particular, they may contain antihistamines, which can cause bad reactions in some people.

If you are considering any type of sleep aid, talk with your doctor first. He or she can help determine the best option for you. Also follow these steps to avoid problems:

  • Use a sleep aid only as directed. Don't take extra doses for a better night's rest.

  • Take sleep aids for as short a time as possible. Some can be addictive.

  • Never combine a sleeping aid with drugs or alcohol. Bad reactions are more likely to happen.

  • Take a sleep aid only when you are able to devote at least eight hours to rest. Otherwise, you may be too sleepy the next day to perform daily activities.

  • Consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) before trying a sleep aid. CBT can teach you better sleep habits and ease anxiety associated with insomnia.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Better Sleep, No Pill Needed

Sleep restores the body. It may also help prevent chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Before opting for a sleep aid, try these sound-sleep strategies:

  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine for six hours before bedtime.

  • Clear your mind of the day's stress. Take a few minutes to talk about the day or try making a list. If you can't sleep, do something that's not very stimulating, such as reading, until you feel sleepy.

  • Learn deep breathing or relaxation exercises. They may help lull your body to sleep.

  • Control your exposure to light at night. Darkness is a cue for your body to sleep.

  • Turn alarm clocks toward the wall. Waking up in the middle of the night and checking the time may increase anxiety and prevent you from falling back to sleep.

  • Wake up at the same time every day. Your body will respond well to a consistent cycle.

Want to be more sleep savvy? Take this quiz.

Online Resources

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute - Your Guide to Healthy Sleep

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke - Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep

National Sleep Foundation