Are sleeping pills dangerous?

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Dr. Ezequiel (Zeke) Medina, PharmD, RPh, enjoys helping patients achieve their health goals. For the past 15 years, Zeke has helped countless people take their medications as prescribed to safely treat acute and chronic health conditions. He’s been a Humana Pharmacy® clinical pharmacist for the past 4 years.

“I became aware of pharmacy at an early age when my grandparents started taking medications and were experiencing side effects. I quickly realized this was a specialty that required a lot of training and attention to detail,” says Zeke. In addition to being a pharmacist, he’s also a certified sleep consultant with a passion for good sleep. In his first article for Humana Pharmacy, he writes about sleep disorders and the dangers of sleep medications.

And now—let’s hear from Zeke:

The importance of sleep

It does not fail! One bad night of sleep can lead to more bad nights, and before you know it, you’re constantly waking up groggy and tired. A friend recommends a sleeping pill to help you get a good nights’ rest.

But you want to know more about the risks and benefits before starting a new medication. Does this situation sound familiar? If so, let’s discuss what causes sleep problems and important information you should know about sleep medications.

What causes sleep problems?

People with sleep problems most likely have a sleep disorder. The most common type of sleep disorder is insomnia. Someone with insomnia has difficultly falling or staying asleep. There are several causes for sleep disorders, including:

  • Health issues such as anxiety, depression, trauma, chronic pain or injury1
  • Situational factors (that may lead to insomnia), such as job stress, moving, traveling, bed partners or poor sleeping environments2
  • Bad sleeping habits such as watching TV when trying to fall asleep, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol before bed3

Most sleep disorders can be fixed by making lifestyle changes. These changes can provide an immediate improvement in quality of sleep and mood during the day.

The dangers of sleep medication

Sleep medications were created to treat insomnia. When you’ve had multiple nights with poor sleep and have started to see a disruption in your daytime activities, your healthcare provider may prescribe you a sleeping pill.

Sleeping pills come in a variety of drug classes. Some sleeping pills, such as benzodiazepines, have a hypnotic, sedating and muscle relaxing effect. Whatever the effect, sleeping pills induce sleepiness and prevent wakefulness. However, if you continue to take the same dose of sleep medication for an extended time, it will no longer be effective.

With certain sleeping pills, the sedation effects will eventually wear off, but the hypnotic effect will stay in full force, which may lead to headaches, dizziness or changes in appetite. Other serious side effects when taking sleeping pills are:4

  • Sleepwalking (most common)
  • Sleep driving
  • Sleep eating
  • Sleep phone calling

Some sleeping pills can interact with your daily medication. For example, diazepam, a sleep medication, is still active after being metabolized (broken down) by the liver and can accumulate in the body—lasting for hours after you wake up.5 The interaction between sleeping pills and your daily medication(s) are dependent on many factors, but you should always speak with your pharmacist if you feel there’s a risk to your health.

Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription sleep medications known to be dangerous with long-term use are:

  • Benzodiazepines (Temazepam, Lorazepam and many others)
  • Z hypnotics (Zolpidem, Zaleplon and Eszopiclone)
  • Potent antihistamines (Zzzquil or Benadryl)

If you’re currently taking 1 of these medications and have questions, the best person to talk to is your healthcare provider.

Safe alternatives to sleeping pills

Getting enough sleep can be as simple as changing your lifestyle! And improving your sleep hygiene is the safest alternative to sleeping pills.6 Here are some easy tips to help you get started:

  • Avoid caffeine close to bedtime. Instead, try drinking chamomile tea, which has a calming effect that may help you fall asleep.
  • Limit or avoid daytime naps
  • Try exercising no more than 3 hours before bed—too close to bed can disrupt deep sleep
  • Maintain a healthy diet—avoid heavy or fried foods before bed

If you’re currently taking OTC sleep medications such as Aleve PM or melatonin, check with your provider to see if they’re safe for everyday use. You can also speak with a Humana Pharmacy pharmacist. We love helping you with your medications!

Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational use only and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical professional. You should consult with your provider to determine what's right for you.

1. “Causes of Sleep Problems,” WebMD, last accessed February 10, 2022, https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-disorders-causes.

2. “Factors that contribute to insomnia,” American Psychological Association, last accessed February 10, 2022, https://www.apa.org/monitor/oct01/insomnia.

3. “Understanding Sleep Problems – The Basics,” WebMD, last accessed February 10, 2022, https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/understanding-sleep-problems-basics.

4. “Understanding the Side Effects of Sleeping Pills,” WebMD, last accessed February 10, 2022, https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/understanding-the-side-effects-of-sleeping-pills.

5. “Pharmacokinetics (Diazepam)”, last accessed February 10, 2022, https://www.clinicalkey.com/pharmacology/monograph/181?sec=monphar.

6. “8 Natural Sleep Aids: What Works?” Healthline, last accessed February 10, 2022, https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sleep/natural-sleep-aids.

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