Many insomniacs depend on sleep medication to help them nod off, but this could be worsening your symptoms in the long term
There are as many as 16 million adults in the UK living with insomnia, and for many of them sleeping pills provide a fast and effective solution to yet another sleepless night. In fact, research from Aviva in 2017 found that more than one in 10 of us have taken tablets to help us get to sleep. That’s more than 6 million people.
The knockout effects of sleeping pills can be tempting, especially for people living with insomnia, but it’s important to remember that these kinds of medication are designed to be used as a short-term management strategy rather than an outright cure for insomnia. In fact, sleeping pills could actually increase your sleeplessness in the long term.
So with more and more of us relying on medication as a permanent cure for insomnia, it’s important to look more closely at what a sleeping pill dependency can mean for your sleep quality.
Sleep medication offers sleep quantity at the expense of sleep quality
Sleeping pills, by their very nature, are a form of sedative. Specifically, they are sedative hypnotics. These are drugs that depress or slow down the body’s functions, and another well-known example would be tranquilisers.
It’s important to draw the distinction between the kind of sedation offered by sleep medication and that provided by natural, drug-free sleep. You may get more sleep with the help of medication, but the kind of sleep you get won’t always be beneficial. This is because medication inhibits the brain’s natural functions and can prevent you from cycling through the different phases of sleep – including Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.
Because of this, many sleeping pill users report side effects such as grogginess and nausea in the mornings, despite having achieved what may seem like eight solid hours of sleep.
Relying on treatment can lead to increased anxiety around sleep
Remember, ‘good’ sleepers don’t actually need to do anything to fall asleep. Like breathing, sleeping is something which should come naturally. A long-term dependency on medication can lead to mindsets such as “I can’t sleep without my pills”, and this can make you more likely to stay awake.
So that little bottle on your bedside table can be a real source of sleep anxiety, increasing your chances of experiencing insomnia in the long run.
Sleep medication can have detrimental effects on your health overall
As we mentioned earlier, sleep medication is generally designed for short term use. And it can be incredibly effective for those who need instant relief from insomnia or another sleep related disorder. But it is important to note that NICE guidelines recommend that most treatments should last no longer than four weeks.
Despite this, more and more of us who have trouble sleeping find ourselves relying on pills for extended periods of time.
Research has shown the potential damage caused by a long-term use of sleeping pills. A 2014 study by the University of Warwick found that using sleep medication for a long period of time can even impact on life expectancy.
How to alleviate your dependency on sleep medication
Sleeping medication can be a useful short-term method of tackling a bout of insomnia, but if you are considering coming off your pills there are several steps you can take to maximise your safety and success.
Firstly, you should always consult your doctor before deciding to come off a prescription medication. You should also be prepared to take things slowly. Going cold turkey can be detrimental and, in some cases, quite dangerous, so make sure you move away from sleep medication gradually. Try reducing your intake by 25% every two weeks to allow your body to gently adapt to its absence.
Don’t feel you have to suffer alone either. Telling a family member or a friend about your decision will give you some much needed support and a greater chance of success. You should also leave yourself some room for failure. Life rarely runs smoothly, so be patient with yourself and accept that you may not find the process as easy as you think.
Simple lifestyle changes could help you sleep better
Identifying the underlying cause or causes of insomnia is the best way to effectively treat the condition in the long run. This could be something which is causing significant stress, in which case tackling it head on can help you rest better.
Other simple lifestyle changes you can make to help you sleep better include:
- Maintaining a regular sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up around the same time every day
- Engaging in regular exercise
- Avoiding caffeine, particularly late at night
- Avoiding bright screens just before bed, such as your smartphone. Instead, try reading or meditating before bed
- Keeping your bedroom cool and dark
- Investing in a high-quality mattress