In one of my recent blog entries, I talked about some simple measures that can help patients with insomnia, called sleep hygiene. Many times these methods can fix the problem, but other times, patients still can’t sleep well, which interferes with life. In these cases, medications may be of some help.
The “Z” medications
The “Z” group of medications includes zolpidem (Ambien), zaleplon (Sonata), and eszopiclone (Lunesta). These medications, which are not benzodiazepines, have been touted as being safer and less addictive than older benzodiazepines, like temazepam (Restoril), triazolam (Halcion) or clonazepam (Klonopin). However, the “Z” medications stimulate the same brain receptors as benzodiazepines, and are all Schedule IV controlled substances, just like benzodiazepines. This means they all have roughly the same potential to cause addiction, despite enthusiastic marketing by some drug companies.
I don’t prescribe the “Z” medications for patients on medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine because they can cause overdose deaths in these patients. Also, these medications can give many patients with the disease of addiction the same impulse to misuse their medication. I’ve had patients develop problems with misuse and overuse of these medicines.
Many doctors, including me, have prescribed trazadone to help patients get and stay asleep. It’s an antidepressant, but daytime use has been limited due to drowsiness. In an effort to use this side effect for benefit, it’s often prescribed at bedtime to treat insomnia. But a recent study called this practice into question. In this study, trazadone was not found to be effective for methadone maintenance patients with insomnia. Test subjects were monitored with sleep study apparatus, and these subjects had no subjective or objective benefit from trazadone, either in initiating or staying asleep. 
Because trazadone can affect the QT interval, just like methadone, it’s possible these two drugs used together will dangerously prolong the QT interval. Also, both can cause sedation, also a concern. In view of this data, I have stopped recommending or prescribing it as an insomnia medication.
Quetiapine is in the group of medications known as atypical antipsychotics, and is indicated for the treatment of schizophrenia, the mania of bipolar disorder, and treatment-resistant depression. Because it is a sedating medication, many doctors prescribe it for treatment of insomnia, usually at low doses, around 25 to 100mg at bedtime.
Does it work? Two small studies, designed to see if the drug can help insomnia, showed conflicting results. One study showed significant improvement and the other showed no significant improvement.
Furthermore, this medication is not without side effects. At higher doses, used to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, patients can develop diabetes and hyperlipidemia. But even at low doses, we see weight gain, restless legs, dizziness which can lead to night time falls, and dry mouth. There’s a risk, though likely small, of tardive dyskinesia with this drug. This is a serious movement disorder more commonly seen with the older antipsychotics like thorazine; patients on the atypical antipsychotics can also develop this potentially devastating disorder.
With little evidence to support its use, and potential serious side effects, I no longer initiate a prescription for quetiapine in a patient with insomnia. I do have some patients who’ve been started on this medication before they started seeing me. If they still feel it’s effective and I see no side effects, I’ll continue the medication. I make sure they get yearly lipid profiles done and recommend yearly screens for diabetes, and monitor for weight gain.
At addiction medicine conferences, I’ve heard doctors say that some of their patients misuse quetiapine. Personally, I think that must be unusual, and maybe these are patients in an experimental phase of addiction. I don’t see seasoned addicts using this medication to get high.
This medication, approved by the FDA for treatment of insomnia in 2005, isn’t addictive. It works by stimulating melatonin receptors and it helps patients get to sleep somewhat more effectively than placebo, but doesn’t help keep them asleep. Ramelteon doesn’t cause the rebound insomnia commonly seen after use of the “Z” medications, and has few clinically significant drug interactions. Last time I checked, it’s more expensive than many sleep medications, and many insurance companies demand a prior authorization before they’ll pay for it. I’ve had a few patients do well with this medication, so I like to prescribe it.
Once hoped to be the miracle treatment for insomnia, studies show that at best, melatonin is mildly more effective than placebo for the treatment of insomnia. Melatonin isn’t a prescription medication, and is sold by many manufacturers with little quality control. Since it is categorized as a dietary supplement, the FDA does not examine or approve these products. Since 2010, the FDA only requires that dietary supplements be made according to “good manufacturing practices,” and that companies make a consistent product, free of contamination, with accurate labeling. As I see it, that’s not much oversight and people take their chances with dietary supplements of any kind.
More commonly known as Benadryl, many over-the-counter sleep medications contain this sedating anti-histamine. It can cause sedation in patients taking methadone, and should be avoided or used with caution. I’ve seen one methadone overdose death I believed was due to the interaction with methadone and diphenhydramine, though the patient had taken more than one 50mg diphenhydramine pill.
Otherwise, the medication is mildly to moderately effect at helping people get to sleep. Don’t take more than 50mg, because higher doses can have a reverse effect, and interfere with sleep.
Hydroxyzine (Vistaril) is another potentially sedating anti-histamine that is felt by some doctors to be safer than diphenhydramine, but I can’t find any data to support that view.
I occasionally prescribe clonidine if I think my patient is having a degree of opioid withdrawal as the cause of insomnia. I’m talking about patients who wish to taper, not patients on maintenance. If a patient on maintenance has insomnia from withdrawal, it’s best to increase the dose of the maintenance medication.
Clonidine can help insomnia from withdrawal. Because this is a blood pressure medication, it can drop night-time blood pressure when taken for sleep. This can cause a patient to fall if they get up during the night. I caution patients that if they must get up at night, stand beside their bed for a few minutes to make sure they don’t feel dizzy. I usually prescribe a .1mg pill and have them take only one pill.
This anti-seizure medication is used for a little bit of everything, so why not insomnia? Officially, gabapentin is approved by the FDA for treating seizures and for the pain of post-herpetic neuralgia (that’s the pain that stays after a shingles outbreak). But doctors use gabapentin for fibromyalgia, insomnia, migraine headaches, bipolar disorder, and probably other conditions. According to Medscape’s drug interaction checker, gabapentin has no interaction with methadone or buprenorphine, but Epocrates’ drug interaction checker says use with caution with these medications due to possible daytime sedation.
Some patients take these medications at bedtime for their sedating effect, but I don’t think there’s any evidence these medications are particularly effective.
I include placebo as a reminder that about thirty percent of people will get benefit from a pill containing no medication. Our minds are powerful. (Parenthetically, I’m highly susceptible to suggestion. As a young adult, I got “drunk” on cider that I was told contained alcohol. I felt intoxicated, to the point of losing my balance and getting dizzy. But my friend had played a trick and there was no alcohol in this cider.) It’s difficult to know if a pill or potion for sleep works because it’s effective, or if it works because of the placebo effect. If you’ve found a medication that works, keep taking it, so long as it’s not doing any harm.
A recent study showed that adults who use sleeping pills are more than three times more likely to die prematurely compared to matched controls who didn’t use sleeping pills. This relatively large study looked at the medical records of over 10,000 patients who were prescribed hypnotics for sleep, and compared their outcomes to over 23,000 matched control patients, similar except the controls weren’t taking sleeping pills. The sleeping pills, also called “hypnotics” were associated with significant increases in mortality and significant increases in cancer incidence. 
The patients’ average age was 54, and they were followed for an average of 2.5 years. All were members of a large U.S. healthcare system in Pennsylvania. The data from the two groups were adjusted for age, gender, smoking status, prior cancer diagnoses, body mass index, ethnicity, and alcohol use.
Patients in the group taking prescribed hypnotics most frequently, defined as more than 132 doses per year, had over five times increased risk of dying than patients not taking hypnotics. Even the group of patients taking hypnotics relatively infrequently (up to 18 doses per year) had a three times higher risk of death. These differences were statistically significant. The medications in the study included all of the “Z” medications, as well as temazepam (Restoril), barbiturates, and the sedating antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl).
The author of this study estimated that hypnotic medications are associated with 320,000 to 507,000 deaths in the U.S. over the year 2010.
This study raises some important questions, since hypnotic drugs are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., with an estimated 6 to 10% of the population being prescribed these medications.
Sleep medicine doctors say that correlation doesn’t mean causation, and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. One sleep specialist pointed out that the study didn’t control for psychiatric illness, which could be a significant factor. Additionally, patients who are prescribed sleeping medications may be sicker overall, in ways the study didn’t control, and therefore a generally less healthy group. This could distort study findings.
Other scientists say that sleeping pills could make sleep apnea worse, and cause deaths in that way. Obesity increases the risk of sleep apnea, and with more adults becoming obese, perhaps sleeping pills make apnea worse and these people die in their sleep. Other scientists say sleeping pills slow reflexes, and perhaps patients taking these medications are more likely to be involved in car accidents and other accidents, increasing their death rates.
As for my patients, many of whom are prescribed methadone or buprenorphine, the risk of drug interaction and overdose with the hypnotics usually outweighs all of the benefits, and I recommend that patients do not mix these two types of medications.
As a final bit of advice, I want to remind readers that other physical and mental health conditions can cause insomnia. It’s a good idea to see a primary care doctor to screen for these conditions, which can include sleep apnea, asthma, gastroesophagel reflux, hyperthyroidism, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders. Sometimes patients need sleep studies to assess for sleep disorders.
1. Stein et al, “Trazadone for sleep disturbance during methadone maintenance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial,” Drug and Alcohol Depend., 2012, Jan 1;120(1-3):65-73
2. BMJ Open 2012;2:e000850 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-000850