The Truth about Sleeping Pills

Sleeping PillsA few years ago if you went to your doctor about a sleeping problem, the chances would be very high that they would give you a sleeping pill. “Dispensed as if they were candy” is how one sleep professional put it.

Many people think that sleeping pills are the only reliable cure for insomnia. Almost 1 in 10 have asked their doctor for sleeping pills. People have been conditioned to think that they need these sleeping pills to sleep.

What many people don’t know about is the dark reality of sleeping pills. Doing sleeping pills is like making a deal with the devil. Long term gain for long term pain. This article explains why.

The Problem with Sleeping Pills

Sleeping pills are only useful in very limited circumstances. Taking them to deal with a long term insomnia can leave you drug dependant and with a far worse insomnia problem.

They have a range of unwanted side effects

The side effects of taking sleeping pills include:

  • Make you feel sleepy during the day – Known as the hangover effect. Sleeping pills often stay in your system long after you’ve woken up.

  • Cause you to become physically addicted to them – Suffer from a range of withdrawal effects if you stop taking them. Including even worse insomnia than before you started taking them.

  • Cause psychological dependency – Encourage the belief that you’re somehow broken and that you need this sleeping pill just to be able to sleep at all.

  • Cause a range of long term health problems – Sleeping pills have been linked to increase risk of cancer, dementia, and death from all causes.

Take a read of the article sleeping pill side effects for the full picture.

They stop working

As your body gets used to the sleeping pill, it begins to stop working. Sometimes in just a few weeks. You then have to deal with the side effects of sleeping pill alongside the sleep deprivation from your insomnia.

In order for it to start working again, your dosage needs to be increased. This causes the unwanted side effects listed above to become even worse. It’s an endless cycle:

  1. Your body gets used to the drug
  2. Requires more of it
  3. Increased dosage increases dependency
  4. Experience worst side effects
  5. Repeat

Each time you experience more guilt and helplessness. You think that you’re the one special case that can’t be cured. The only one the drugs don’t work for.

In the end the doctor won’t increase your dosage any further and then you’re in an even worse position than before you even took the sleeping pill.

They’re not even designed to cure long term insomnia

Medical guidelines clearly state, as they have done for years, that sleeping pills should only be used for short term or occasional use. They should be used as a last resort to deal with a short term insomnia problem. Routine prescriptions are rarely, if ever justified.

Despite this doctors routinely give out sleeping pill prescriptions to patients. Research has shown that 12% of chronic insomniacs take them. That’s 12% too many!

Sleeping pills don’t provide the cure for insomnia. They’re only useful when the cause of the insomnia will go away after a short period of time, such as insomnia caused by a short term change in circumstances or a bereavement. If the cause of insomnia isn’t soon going to go away, then sleeping pills are not the answer.

Types of Sleeping Pills

There are four main types of sleeping pills. Prescription sleeping pills from your doctor, melatonin, over the counter sleeping pills from your local pharmacist, and natural herbal sleeping pills.

Prescription sleeping pills

There’re three main categories of prescription sleeping pills:

  • Benzodiazepines – The older type of sleeping pills first developed in the early 70s. They vary in the length of time they stay in your body.

  • Z Drugs – The newer type of sleeping pills developed in the 90s. Shorter acting with supposedly fewer side effects.

  • Orexin antagonists – A brand new type of sleeping pill currently in development. Again, promising fewer side effects.

  • Depression medication – Prescribed if doctors think depression could be a cause of insomnia, or if you’re particularly at risk from the side effects of traditional sleeping pills.

There’s a whole range of different types of medication that fall into these three categories. For a full list see sleeping pill names.


Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by your body. It’s known as the hormone of darkness because it’s only secreted when you’re in darkness. It’s used by the body to entrain your sleep wake cycle’s circadian rhythm to the day night cycle so that you’re awake during the day and asleep at night.

Synthetic versions of melatonin can be found in various pills marketed as sleeping medication. They require a doctor’s prescription in the UK and many other countries. In the US you can buy it over the counter, where it’s dubiously classed as a food supplement rather than a form of medication (it’s found in tiny quantities in certain foods). It’s a cost saving loophole for the drugs companies. They don’t need to test the drug to make sure it’s suitable for its intended use.

Melatonin is used by doctors (often alongside light therapy) to treat circadian rhythm disorders such as jet lag, delayed sleep phase syndrome and advanced sleep phase syndrome.

Over the counter sleeping pills

Over the counter sleeping pills includes brands such as Nytol. Their main ingredient is a antihistamine which has the side effect of making you feel sleep.

These types of sleeping pills generate millions every year for the drug companies. They’re popular with consumers who see them as a quick fix that they can conveniently pick up at their leisure from the local pharmacist.

However whilst the antihistamine does make you feel a little drowsy, it’s not very effective at actually sending you to sleep. There’s very little evidence that they work any better than a sugar pill.

Side effects can include daytime sleepiness, anxiety, and reduced sleep quality.

Natural sleeping pills

Also known as herbal sleeping pills. There are a number of different herbs that promote sleep. You can buy pills that contain just one single herb or contain a mix of different herbs.

They have a sedating effect on the body. There’s been little research done on herbal sleep aids but they do seem to have a positive, albeit rather limited effect that can help send you to sleep.

The big advantage of herbal sleep aids is that because they’re 100% natural they avoid the unwanted side effects. Herbs such as lavender and jasmine have been shown to increase sleep quality, as opposed to traditional sleeping pills that reduce sleep quality.

The Best Sleeping Pills

If you need to take a sleeping pill:

  • Only do so as a last resort
  • Use the lowest dosage possible
  • Take for the shortest amount of time possible
  • Choose one that wears off quickly during the night

Only use them when required such as one night in three. Treat sleeping pills as a short term solution. They’re like a bandage. Bandages won’t heal the wound but they can be useful in the short term while the wound heals itself or receives the appropriate treatment.

Alternatives to Sleeping Pills

There are many alternatives to sleeping pills that have been shown by research to be just as effective or even better at helping you sleep.

  • Light therapy – Shifts your sleep pattern either backwards so that you fall asleep earlier or forwards so you sleep later. Uses a light box at certain times of the day to produce the shift.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy – A series of tips and techniques used to discover and treat the main cause of your insomnia. Available from your doctor or from various books.
  • Natural sleep aids – A list that includes hypnosis, aromatherapy and binaural beats. Useful in helping you relax, but often not enough on their own to cure chronic insomnia.