Sleeping tablets are used for temporary or short-term relief from symptoms of insomnia; a frustrating and exhausting condition characterised by the lack of restorative sleep. The two main types of sleeping pills prescribed here in the UK are hypnotics such as zopiclone and zolpidem, and naturally occurring hormones such as melatonin.
In order to be prescribed any of the above medications, you must have been suffering with insomnia for longer than three months and have exhausted all over avenues of symptom management. The good news is that in most instances, people fall back into a normal sleeping pattern just by trialling a stricter and healthier bedtime regime which can include making sure their bedroom is dark, comfortable, and free of electronic devices such as phones and laptops.
None of the sleeping tablets on prescription are intended for long term use due to the body building up a tolerance to the medication and/or becoming dependant on it. However, when used alongside home methods, most people find that they don’t feel the need to take them for any longer than prescribed.
These medications may make you feel drowsy the day after, so make sure you know how they affect you and how you feel before driving or operating machinery.
“Insomnia is a condition that can quickly affect other areas of a person’s life and mental health. Luckily, most cases subside with good sleep practices and relaxation before bed, but in more chronic cases, or when a patient suffers from sleeplessness due to shift work or jet lag, medication may be prescribed as a last-resort option. It is important that the treatment is not continued for longer than 2-4 weeks as you can become dependant and/or become tolerant to the sleeping tablets”.
What are sleeping tablets?
Sleeping tablets or sleeping aids are medicines designed to give you a full night of restorative sleep. They’re commonly used to treat people with insomnia, and there are several options available. Hypnotic medication such as Zopiclone and Zolpidem are only prescribed as a last-resort method for people struggling with poor sleep, whereas other insomnia treatments such as Melatonin are less-restricted and more appropriate for longer-term solutions.
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is characterised by a lack of sleep, or more accurately, difficulty sleeping. A majority of people experience some sleep disturbances at some point in their lives, though this isn’t a major cause for concern. However, if you struggle with sleep for more than 3 nights a week for 3 months consistently, you may be suffering from chronic insomnia. Most people experience symptoms such as the following:
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Lying awake at night
- Taking more than an hour to fall asleep
- Still feeling tired after waking up
- Finding it hard to nap during the day
- Feeling tired and irritable
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Waking several times during the night
If the symptoms of insomnia persist for a prolonged amount of time, they can start to affect other areas of your life such as work, relationships, and mental health. Unfortunately, it can be a vicious cycle. If you struggle with mental health issues to begin with, they may cause insomnia, but in turn, the lack of restorative sleep can worsen the symptoms of mental health problems. There are also many other factors that can cause sleep disturbances, such as:
- being uncomfortable
- some medications
- caffeine consumption
- jet lag
- shift work
Before taking any prescription medication, it is important to adopt healthy sleeping habits, as most cases of insomnia can go away with home management and a good sleep regime. Adults generally tend to need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Any less can mean that it’s difficult to function and you can end up being exhausted. Ideas for home treatment and changing sleeping habits include:
- making sure your bedroom is the optimum temperature for sleep. Although you may think that getting warm and cosy is the ideal way to fall asleep, research shows that the best temperature for a good night’s sleep is between 16-18 degrees Celsius.
- Making sure your room is dark. Blackout blinds or thick lined curtains can help to keep light to a minimum, especially if you live in a city with lots of light pollution
- Get yourself into a routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even if you have nothing to do one day.
- Avoid caffeine for several hours before you go to bed. You can switch to decaf tea and coffee, or just drink water as an alternative
- Turn off electronics around an hour before you go to sleep, and keep them outside of your bedroom. If you rely on your phone to wake you up, it may be worth investing in a traditional alarm clock, as the blue light given off by screens can contribute to sleeplessness
- Try not to nap during the day as this can disturb your sleeping pattern and lead to your body clock being out of sync
- Take part in relaxing activities before bed, such as meditation, mindfulness, listening to calm music, or taking a warm bath
- Make sure you’re comfortable in bed. Choosing the right mattress, pillows and duvet for yourself could make all the difference between refreshing sleep and restless sleep
- If your insomnia is caused by mental health problems, make an appointment with your GP in order to discuss the best treatment
Hopefully, you should find that a combination of the above methods will reduce your symptoms of insomnia, but what happens if you’re still struggling after trying everything?
Sleeping tablets and medication for insomnia:
As a last resort, doctors can prescribe certain medications to help with falling and staying asleep
Zopiclone and Zolpidem belong to a medicinal family called hypnotics. These medications are only given as sleeping tablets in extreme cases where chronic insomnia is affecting a patient’s quality of life. Both of these medications are only given on a short-term basis, normally around 2-4 weeks. After this time, the body can build up a tolerance to them and they will no longer have a positive effect on sleep. It is also possible to become dependent on this type of medication.
Taking hypnotics as sleeping tablets can not only help you fall and stay asleep at night, but they can also make you drowsy the next day. It isn’t advised that you drive or operate machinery until you know how this medication affects you. As well as lasting drowsiness, other side effects include:
- Metallic taste in mouth (sipping water or flavoured squash can help this)
- Dry mouth
- Reduced alertness
It should be noted that this isn’t an extensive list of side effects for these sleeping tablets, so always read the patient information leaflet that comes with the medication.
Naturally occurring hormones:
Rather than hypnotics, it is possible to buy melatonin in the UK for help with sleep disturbances. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that is released during dark hours (hence why it’s important to keep your bedroom dark when you intend to sleep). Melatonin itself won’t make you sleep in the same way that hypnotics do, instead, it helps to prepare the body for sleep so you may find it easier to drift off at night. This type of insomnia treatment is also only prescribed for short term use, though it typically causes fewer side effects than Zopiclone and Zolpidem. Melatonin is often used in people who struggle with sleep because of shift work or jet lag, but has also been proven to help in more chronic cases.
Both types of sleeping tablets mentioned above must be taken 1-2 hours before bed time to optimise their effects and help you get a better night’s sleep.