5 Things You Don't Know About Sleeping Pills

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Last week, my aunt casually mentioned her regular habit of taking Robitussin to get to sleep. "Wait, like every night?" my cousins and I called her out. "Not in the summer months," she said. This is clearly not a good get-to-sleep strategy. But neither are some prescription sleeping pills.

Americans are increasingly relying on prescription sleep aids, however. A recent CDC report found nearly nine million Americans — about four percent of adults over 20 — take prescription sleeping pills (and considerably more women than men). If you're considering becoming one of them, here are some things to consider.

1. They shouldn't be a first resort.

Persistent insomnia can be a sign of psychological issues or an underlying medical or sleep disorder. "If you're regularly having trouble either falling or staying asleep (insomnia), make an appointment with your doctor," says the Mayo Clinic. Sleeping pills may be in order, but "behavior changes learned through cognitive behavioral therapy are generally the best treatment."

2. They're don't all do the same thing.

Some prescription sleeping pills are designed to help you fall asleep faster (Sonata, Ambien), some to stay asleep longer (Restoril), and some for both (Lunesta). Make sure your needs match your pill of choice.

3. They can cause withdrawal symptoms.

With some sleeping pills, stopping suddenly can cause anxiety, weird dreams, nausea, and vomiting. You may also have short-term rebound insomnia for a few days after you stop.

4. They don't mix with certain diseases and conditions.

Depression, metabolic conditions, sleep apnea, and respiratory issues are just a few of the things that could make prescription sleeping pills more risky.

5. They've been linked to decreased lifespans.

Studies have linked sleeping pill use with earlier deaths and higher cancer rates.