Sleeping pill use in Australia is high – a 2011 paper released by the ABS indicates that 4.3% of the Australian population were using sedatives, with women more likely to have a prescription than men.

Sleeping pills are often seen as the immediate answer to any kind of sleep problem. Unfortunately, they have issues of their own.

Some sleeping pills can be addictive, many become less effective the longer they take them, sleeping problems become worse if the pills are stopped, and some can cause sleep walking.

Stillnox is particularly notorious for people doing strange things while technically asleep.

People resort to sleeping pills because they are desperate to get enough sleep – lack of sleep has been compared to being drunk for cognitive impacts and many people are sleeping on a schedule which does not suit them well.

There are a number of reasons what sleep difficulties may not be adequately managed – treatments may be ineffective, other health issues may take priority, or stress could be interfering.

So, are sleeping pills the answer? Before asking your doctor for a prescription, consider these factors:

The Risks Increase As You Grow Older

Older people are more likely to have sleep problems and, thus, more likely to reach for pills. Unfortunately, the side effects of sleeping pills are worse in older individuals.

For example, some pills can cause temporary memory loss. Older people are also at higher risk of side effects such as sleep inertia (not being able to wake up properly the next day), sleepwalking, and experiencing sleep that is not satisfying (in that they still feel sluggish and tired during the day).

Alternatives To Sleeping Tablets

Most doctors now consider that sleeping pills should be a last resort. Some people resort to herbal supplements. However, these herbs can also have side effects and don’t work for everyone – studies about the effectiveness of valerian, a common herb, show that it may or may not work and if it does, it can cause the same dependency as prescription pills. Melatonin is safe, but only works for some people, and is traditionally used to treat jet lag and shift work related issues.

A better route is to address insomnia through non-drug methods. First, look for causes of your insomnia and deal with those. Depression and anxiety, for example, can both cause insomnia. Therapy can help resolve the underlying issues (are you staying awake because you are worried). Some people benefit from meditation and relaxation techniques, which include deep breathing exercises and visualization (in other words, for some people, counting sheep really does help).

The absolute key, though, is to learn good sleep habits and practice “sleep hygiene.”

How to develop good sleeping habits

Developing good sleeping habits is one of the best long-term solutions to insomnia. Here are some recommendations:

  1. Keep to a regular sleep schedule. Don’t go to bed early unless you are actually tired. Try to avoid sleeping in unless you are actually tired and really need the extra sleep. Try to find a schedule that balances your work/life schedule with the needs of your body.
  2. Try to minimise “night caps.” Although alcohol will put you to sleep, it will be bad sleep – alcohol disrupts normal sleep patterns. Never mix alcohol and sleeping pills. If you do indulge, do so with dinner, a few hours before sleep. On a similar note, avoid caffeine within four hours of bed time.
  3. Don’t toss and turn. If you can’t sleep, accept it and get up. Do an activity you find relaxing and which does not involve a screen.
  4. Try to stop screen/computer/phone use an hour before bed. If your schedule doesn’t allow this or if you can’t resist those late night video games, use software that alters your computer’s display color balance – this helps some people.
  5. Make your bedroom comfortable – make sure it is neither too hot nor too cold. Some people cannot sleep without heavy covers. If there is a lot of light outside at night, consider investing in blackout curtains or blinds. If there is a lot of noise, try a white noise generator.
  6. Primarily use your bed for sleeping – not working or watching tv. This conditions your body to expect sleep when you lie down. Reading or, worse, using electronics in bed breaks this cycle and can cause insomnia to rear its head.

Making lifestyle changes and developing good habits can do good in the long term – and following good sleep habits may even help a person sleep better. But if it doesn’t, it may be worth seeing a medical professional to see what support can work for you.

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