What are they?

There are several types of sleeping pills. Some are only available with a prescription, such as benzodiazepines. These are a group of drugs that slow down the brain and central nervous system and are used to reduce anxiety, relax the body and help with sleep. There are about 30 different types and each can be sold under several brand names. The most well-known brand name, Valium, is the generic drug diazepam. Different types of benzodiazepines work for different lengths of time.

The z-drugs – zolpidem, zoplicone and zaleplon – are also only available on prescription and have a similar affect to benzodiazepines. Most over-the-counter pills contain antihistamines as the active ingredient. They are also used to treat allergies and hay fever and are not as powerful as benzodiazepines or z-drugs.

There are also a number of “natural” sleeping tablets. Most contain the herb valerian or the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is made in the brain by the pineal gland and affects our internal body clock and sleep cycle. The Australian Consumers’ Association says valerian is the most popular natural sleeping aid as it has undergone the highest number of trials. Other pills contain herbs such as passionflower, hops and chamomile and minerals such as calcium, magnesium and vitamins B6 and K.

The pros

  • Prescription tablets are very powerful. They may be prescribed for a short time to get you over a bad bout of insomnia.
  • A Harvard Medical School study found that melatonin tablets may help people whose sleep patterns are disrupted by shift work or travel across time zones.
  • Herbal sleeping pills have fewer side effects than the other pills.

The cons

  • Prescription pills have several side effects that can last from a few hours to a few days, depending on the dose and type of drug. Side effects include drowsiness, confusion, dizziness, blurred vision, clumsiness, mood swings and poor memory.
  • Your body develops a tolerance for prescription pills after between three and 14 days of continued use and you will need to increase the dose. Some people also become dependant on them and have withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety and shaking, when they stop taking them.
  • Antihistamines are not as strong as prescription drugs, but can still cause drowsiness the next day. “Side effects include difficulty urinating, urinary retention, dry mouth and blurred vision. People quickly develop a tolerance to them,” says Dr Lynn Weekes, National Prescribing Service CEO.
  • The benefits of melatonin pills are still unproven, says the University of California Berkeley. Although they help people fall asleep faster, them may not help them stay asleep and may cause drowsiness the next day.
  • A Choice magazine study found that most herbal sleeping pills had no effect on insomnia. There have also been rare reports of liver damage from valerian use and it can cause headaches and stomach upsets.

When not to take them

  • You should not take prescription sleeping pills if you are on antidepressants, pregnant or a new mother. You should not drink alcohol or drive while taking them.
  • Antihistamines may interact with other medications, including antidepressants, and shouldn’t be taken by people with asthma, epilepsy or glaucoma.
  • Tell your doctor if you are taking herbal sleeping tablets as they may affect other conditions or interact with medications.
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