Many people rely on some form of a sleep aid medication, including prescription or over-the-counter drugs, to fall asleep. But, is it safe?
Anthony Suchoski MD, a sleep medicine doctor at Group Health, says these are fine for relieving occasional bouts of insomnia, but if you’re using them more than once a week, you should work on cutting back.
“Sleeping is based on habit,” Dr. Suchoski points out. “If you do that all the time, you run the risk of developing the inability to sleep without medication.”
Sleep Aid Medications: What’s the Risk?
The main concern for over-the-counter medications is that they often lead to drowsiness the next day. “And, in elderly people, this can increase their risk for falling,” Dr. Suchoski explains.
On the other hand, prescription drugs, used specifically for improving sleep, carry the following risks:
- Dependence – Relying on a drug for falling asleep and having difficulty falling asleep or achieving restful sleep without it
- Tolerance – Being unable to fall asleep using the original dose and needing to take progressively higher doses of medication
- Rebound insomnia – This can occur after a patient stops taking the drug, and usually causes one or two nights of sleep disturbance, daytime sleepiness and anxiety. In some cases, patients experience a temporary worsening of long-term insomnia.
The Bottom Line: How Often is it OK to Use a Sleep Aid Medicine?
Dr. Suchoski says: “Once a week should be fine, and I would try to use the lowest dose possible that works for you.”
Ideally, you should practice good sleep habits, like limiting your intake of caffeine and nicotine, exercising regularly (three to four hours before bedtime) and going to bed at the same time each night
If you do find that you’re relying on a sleep medicine more often than that, he recommends speaking with your doctor to address the underlying issue.