How Do Sleeping Pills Work?

“Pop the pill” is a common advice to people who can’t sleep, but do sleeping aids really work, and will they have negative side-effects in the body?

According to TIME, more than one-third of adults don't get enough sleep on a regular basis. That is why more and more people, especially women, are turning to sleeping pills to help them get their Zzzs. Sleeping pills are over-the-counter drugs that are primarily designed to treat cases of insomnia. However, since most people are kept awake by a gadget’s blue light, stress or an unhealthy lifestyle, this has become an accessible form of relief.

Popular types of sleeping pills

Diphenhydramine

  • More known by the term “antihistamine”, these sleeping aid blocks the effects of allergy-inducing histamines while also producing a sedating effect. Antihistamines are also known to cure common cold and even hay fever.
  • Popular brands: Advil, Sominex
  • What they contain: antihistamines, doxylamines

Antidepressants

  • Triggering a sedating effect that alters serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, this helps you fall asleep as well as feel lighter when suffering from depression
  • Popular brands: Elavil, Levate
  • What they might contain: trazodon or amitriptyline

Hypnotics

  • Affecting specific parts of GABA (a neurotransmitter that slows down brain activity), these sleeping pills offer a short-term solution to those suffering from insomnia. Low dosages, especially for women, are recommended, as the drug remains in the women's bodies longer compared to men.
  • Popular brands: Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata
  • What they might contain: zolpidem, eszopiclone or zaleplone

Are sleeping pills the same as sleep supplements?

Sleep.org says no. Sleep supplements are more made with organic, botanical ingredients that are often less complex than the prescription drugs. One example: melatonin. Coming in lozenge or tablet forms, these supplements are similar to our natural hormone produced by the brain's pineal brand, made to trigger the body's time to sleep. These supplements are used to treat short-term sleep problems, such as shift-works and jet lags.

While these are naturally-derived aids, sleep supplements can interact with the other medication you take. To be safe, make sure to check with your doctor before taking it.

The side effects of sleeping pills

Dr Phyllis Zee of Feinberg School of Medicine alludes to sleeping pills as bandages instead of cure. “It’s like taking Tylenol every day for a fever without ever figuring out what’s causing the fever,” he says.

Contrary to what most think, sleep medications don't add a lot to your sleep; it only extends it for about 20 to 40 minutes per night. The side effects, however, can be serious. Too much intake of sleeping pills can induce dizziness, delayed bodily response and even memory problems to the patient.

Everyday Health lists some of the negative effects of sleeping pills in the body. For one, regular intake can also build up a tolerance to the drug. When you take OTC sleeping pills for a long time, your body pushes your need for higher doses to get the same effect as you had the first time. But high dosages can lead to breathing problems and other risks as you sleep.

There's also the danger in driving while drowsy. People who take specific forms of sleeping pills such as Ambien will have remnants of the drug in their bodies even in the morning after.

Lastly, leaning on these pills can be mentally and physically difficult, especially when you have to withdraw from it. The result may even worsen your sleepless nights. When it’s time to wean off from these aids, talk to your doctor to help you gradually reduce the dosage instead of quitting it entirely at one stop.

What can be your alternatives to sleeping pills?

According to Woman's Day, it is best to figure out your sleep disturbances by the 30/3/3 rule: Check if you snooze after more than 30 minutes at night, at least three nights a week within three months or more. This may be a sign of insomnia and it won't go away on its own.

However, instead of “popping the pill,” they suggest to try CBT-I – cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia. In this treatment, a specialist looks into your environment and behaviours to reconstruct a better sleep pattern. Things like too little exercise, the type of food you take before bed or the kind of work you do may affect your sleep cycle entirely.

Are sleeping pills all bad?

There is, experts point out, a proper time and place for sleeping pills. Taking it in moderation actually helps. Their suggestion: pop it in a few nights in a week – or two, at most – limited to scenarios when there’s too much stress and you can’t get a proper shut-eye. The real concern is taking sleeping pills regularly on a long period of time.

Sleeping pills work, just not like your natural, restorative sleep. When choosing to take one tonight, make sure that you have done all the other alternatives: a nice, hot bath, aromatherapy or a cup of tea. If all else fails, it’s time to rely on the pill.  

Caris Cruz

Caris writes living + lifestyle for RADICE. Living in the tropical Philippines, she travels around with either a book or a camera, soaking at the world's beautiful soul while translating it into words. How to get the best sleep, according to her? Let go of stress and inhale good thoughts.

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