For the millions of people who struggle every night with insomnia, the question of whether or not to seek help from prescription sleep aids is a big one. At first glance it might seem like an easy decision – after all, what could be easier? You take a pill before you go to bed and then you’re able to fall asleep easily and sleep through the night. Almost seems like a no brainer. But the truth is that sleeping pills have a long history of negative side effects, and many people who take them become addicted to them, unable to sleep without them. That’s a risk that some people aren’t sure that they should take. To them, many sleep specialists and physicians say, you need to figure out whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
So what are the pros and cons? The disadvantages of not sleeping are fairly straightforward, and extensive. If you’re not getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night that sleep specialists advise, then you’re at greater risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, depression, type 2 diabetes and more. Without sleep you are at greater risk for getting into an accident caused by drowsy driving, and your ability to think clearly and access memories is severely diminished. You also are likely to look bad, with dry, saggy skin and dull-looking hair. Taking sleeping pills can eliminate all of those health concerns.
But what about the down sides of taking sleeping pills? You can end up over-medicated, fuzzy headed and wandering around. We’ve all heard the stories about sleep driving while on Ambien. And do we really want to be addicted to a medication?
This is the dilemma that the sleep deprived face, and those of us who are able to regularly sleep through the night, simply can’t understand. There are an estimated nine million Americans using sleep aids every night, and the reason that they do so is that without their drug, they may spend the evening staring at the ceiling, uncertain whether they’ll sleep at all and if so how much sleep they’ll get. The idea of waking up in the middle of the night several times, or just once and then being unable to get to sleep, haunts them throughout the day. Each night getting into bed holds a trace of terror. That’s why sleep aids can be so helpful.
According to Katherine M. Sharkey, a sleep medicine expert at the Sleep for Science Research Lab at Brown University, making a clear-headed decision about pros vs. cons is the absolutely correct way of approaching the problem. “We all in our busy lives are cramming things in, expecting to put kids to bed and then do a couple of hours of work. And it’s hard to switch gears,” she acknowledges. “You expect to go to bed because that’s the next thing on your schedule. You’re scheduled to sleep between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and if you don’t, then you think you’re going to have a terrible day tomorrow.”
Even those among us who are able to get to sleep whenever they want and to stay asleep throughout the night face sleep-related challenges. Making sleep into a priority each night can be difficult, especially with so many other things pulling at us. Electronic devices tempt us with work emails, social media, and the ability to play video games and watch movies and read interesting content. Children call, as does our social life. Add to those distractions physiological problems with sleeping, which may be caused by medications we’re taking, perimenopause or menopause, or any number of other problems, and sleep aids can make a lot of sense.
According to Kelly Glazer Baron, a sleep researcher and neurology instructor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, cognitive behavioral therapy makes a lot of sense in these cases, and it has an 80 percent success rate. “It’s a highly effective, non-drug treatment that keeps working over time and that you don’t need refills on. It’s certainly worth a try.” The therapy is generally completed in just a few sessions, and its goal is to break the behaviors and thought processes that are affecting sleep.
Baron is most concerned about patients who are taking sleeping pills and not finding relief, or who are waking up feeling groggy and drugged, and there are a lot of them out there. These people take the pills every night in order to get the sleep that they need, and they get the sleep, but they experience tremendous difficulty in waking up each morning, and it is only after they have been out of bed for a while, walking around, that they start to feel better. For these people, the dilemma is that if they don’t take the sleeping pills, they feel fine in the morning – but they’re tired and sleep deprived.
One of the answers to this particular problem is to stop taking the pills on a regular basis. Once they become a habit that you fear that you cannot get to sleep without, it may be time to wean yourself off. Doing so is something that should be done with the help of your physician, and the process can take a few months from start to finish, but it enables you to then turn to the pills only when you need them. According to Shelby Harris, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Sleep-Wake Disorders Center, that is the way that sleep aids should really be taken … when we are stressed, or have had more than a few days in a row of not being able to sleep. “We just simply don’t have enough data on long-term usage of sleep aids,” she says.