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Taken correctly, sleeping pills, of course, can induce sleep and ensure a good night's rest. Even when used correctly, however, sleeping pills can have side effects, such as the risk of physical and psychological dependency, daytime sleepiness, and various physical disturbances.
The mechanism by which sleeping pills work differs from one type to the next. Prescription sleeping pills can be broken down into two major groups: benzodiazepine sedative hypnotics (BZNs), and non-benzodiazepine hypnotics. Non-Benzodiazepine hypnotics are the most commonly prescribed sleeping tablets and are believed to be a better choice than BZNs. A well known example of a non-benzodiazepine hypnotic is Ambien®. Sleeping tablets such as Ambien® produce minimal after effects, become effective within 30 minutes, and have a half-life of around three hours.
Some sleeping pills can be purchased without a prescription. Most over-the-counter (OTC) sleeping pills cause drowsiness because of the antihistamines they contain, and antihistamine-based sleeping pills can alleviate mild insomnia but are considered to be less effective long-term. Sominex® is a well known example of an OTC sleeping pill and contains diphenhydramine. Diphenhydramine is also sold as a generic and as Benadryl® for allergy relief but is often used as a sleep aid.
One of the other advantages of taking sleeping pills is that the pills can have two effects: they can help to induce sleep and also help to sustain sleep. The duration of the effects differs, but most sleeping pills will be effective for between six and eight hours. The half-life or after effects are also an important consideration, especially when having to work the next day.
The main disadvantage of taking sleeping pills is the risk of physical or psychological dependency. There are also various side effects such as day time sleepiness, confusion, memory disturbances, headaches and dizziness, to name a few. When taken on a continual basis, they generally become less effective. This may cause the user to exceed the recommended dosage. Sleeping pills can also interact with prescription medication and aggravate certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure. OTC sleeping pills are not recommended for breastfeeding mothers, or those suffering from heart problems or glaucoma.
Experts suggest the following steps to minimize the risk of dependency when taking sleeping pills. Individuals should limit usage to the lowest dosage and not use sleeping pills continuously for longer than two to three weeks. It is also advised to stick to the recommended dosage, and choose sleeping pills with a short half-life.
Natural alternatives can also be a good choice if possible risks are a concern. Herbal sleeping pills often have less side effects and are readily available.