Posts Tagged ‘insomnia’

Insomnia

 

 

 

 

 

I planned to regale my readers with news from the big annual American Society of Addiction Medicine conference, held earlier this month. But it was not to be. The day before I was to depart, I woke up with pink eye.

I woke up with the kind of pink eye that caused fluid to sprout from my eye like an overfull bathtub. Of course, this material in highly infectious, and very messy. I dabbed my eye and face with a tissue, discarded it and washed my hands, only to have to repeat the whole process a minute later. In good conscience I couldn’t get on a plane and go to a meeting of hundreds of people and risk infecting them, so I stayed home, feeling grumpy.

I’ll still go to the sessions, online. ASAM has a wonderful online program, where you can hear sessions at conferences you’ve registered for. So as soon as they are posted, I’ll listen to them at home, and then pass new information on to my readers.

In the meantime, here’s a re-run on insomnia. I get so many patients with insomnia. It’s a common problem for people in recovery, who are waiting for their brain chemistries to calm down. Nearly every week, I recite the main points of good sleep hygiene to patients in need of a good night’s sleep.

For someone who has grown accustomed to taking some sort of substance to fix every problem, hearing that the solution isn’t another pill can be hard to accept, but I’m convinced most sleep issues can be cured or improved with the following principles of sleep hygiene:

Many U.S. citizens, and not only addicts, have become “chemical copers.” We have the idea that every problem can and should be fixed with medication. But with insomnia, sleep hygiene is the best first option, and medication can be used if sleep hygiene doesn’t work.

Sleep hygiene, which sounds it means washing behind your ears at bedtime, really refers to habits that help us get satisfactory sleep. Most are common sense ideas, and they can really make a big difference. Here are some of these ideas:

Go to bed at the same time and wake at the same time every day, even on weekends.

If it’s at all possible, don’t go to bed later or sleep later on weekend days. Get your body into the habit of keeping a regular sleep/wake cycle. You will fall asleep more easily with a fixed bed time.

Besides making your feel better because you’ll get more regular sleep, this practice has other benefits. For example, people with migraine and tension headaches have fewer pain episodes with regular sleep/wake times. Keeping regular sleeping hours is also highly recommended for patients with bipolar disorder, as it can help with mood swings.

Avoid caffeine late in the day. For some people, drinking caffeine in the late afternoon can affect them up to six hours later. To be sure, cut off caffeine at least eight hours before you want to sleep. Caffeine doesn’t affect everyone to this degree, but unless you know for sure, try to limit late-day caffeine. If you consume energy drinks, consider cutting back or stopping them.

Make sure your bed is comfortable and your room as free from distractions as possible. Pets and rowdy bed partners may need to sleep in other areas. Make sure the room temperature is conducive to sleep and there’s no noise or light that may interrupt sleep. Keeping the television on for background noise isn’t a good idea and can prevent you from getting to the deeper levels of sleep.

Don’t set your alarm for earlier than you need to. Many of us like to do this so we can hit snooze a few times. However, the most beneficial sleep, REM sleep, comes at the end of the night, and we are depriving ourselves of REM sleep by hitting the snooze button a few times before getting out of bed for good.

Have a bedtime ritual. Have things you do each night before going to bed that relax you and put you in a mindset to sleep. This could be a series of ablutions like brushing your teeth, flossing, or taking a warm bath. Other people may prefer doing prayer or meditation to quiet the mind, or reading.

Don’t nap during the day to catch up on sleep. More than anything else, napping will keep you from sleeping at night.

This is a tough one for me, since napping has long been one of my hobbies. Because I think of a good nap as one of life’s great joys, on some days I’m willing to risk not being able to get to sleep at night and take the nap anyway.

Don’t use alcohol to help you sleep. While alcohol does cause faster sleep onset, it also shortens the sleep cycle, causing us to wake earlier, and robs us of the important REM sleep. Over long term, alcohol can greatly interfere with your sleep cycle.

Only use your bed for sleep. OK, for sex too. But don’t live in your bed so that you become accustomed to eating, watching television, and working on the computer in bed. Your mind should associate bed with sleep, and not these waking activities.

Exercise each day. More than most other suggestions, this one can help you more than you expect. Even a small amount of exercise can have surprisingly good benefits. Don’t exercise too close to bedtime, since exercise can have a stimulating effect.

Sometimes people in early recovery find they want to sleep more than usual. This can be part of your physical recovery, and I think it’s best to listen to your body and allow yourself extra sleep time without feeling guilty. However, some mood disorders also make people want to “take to the bed” during times of stress and negative emotion. This latter situation may need medication if it continues or interferes with your life.

If you try all these sleep hygiene measures and you still can’t sleep, talk to your doctor about a safe medication for sleep. I’ll write more about medications in a later blog.

 

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Insomnia Medications for Patients in Medication-Assisted Treatment

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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.

Trazadone
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. [1]

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 (Seroquel)
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.

Ramelteon (Rozerem)
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.

Melatonin
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.

Diphenhydramine
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.

Other medications
Clonidine
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.

Gabapentin (Neurontin)
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.

Muscle relaxers
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.

Placebo
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. [2]
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

Non-drug Ways to Help Insomnia

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Insomnia is defined as a sleep disorder which makes it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep. Insomnia can come & go for periods of time, or can be a chronic problem. Not sleeping well can make us less able to handle the stresses of the next day, and can severely affect the quality of our lives.

Insomnia afflicts many patients in recovery, including those on medication assisted treatment with buprenorphine and methadone. Insomnia can occur for many reasons: the brain may be adjusting to life without the chemical ups & downs of addicted life, or because the patient had insomnia even before the addiction started. Physical health problems (chronic pain, thyroid disease, and menopause to name but a few) can cause insomnia or make it worse, as can mental illnesses like anxiety and mood disorders.

Active addiction can destroy normal sleep-wake cycles. Addictive chemicals disrupt the structure and function of the brain, and often people in active addiction become accustomed to passing out rather than falling asleep. It can be difficult to re-learn how to get to sleep naturally.

Many U.S. citizens, and not only addicts, have become “chemical copers.” We have the idea that every problem can and should be fixed with medication. But with insomnia, sleep hygiene is the best first option, and medication can be used if sleep hygiene doesn’t work.

Sleep hygiene, which sounds it means washing behind your ears at bedtime, really refers to habits that help us get satisfactory sleep. Most are common sense ideas, and they can really make a big difference. Here are some of these ideas:

1. Go to bed at the same time and wake at the same time every day, even on weekends.
If it’s at all possible, don’t go to bed later or sleep later on weekend days. Get your body into the habit of keeping a regular sleep/wake cycle. You will fall asleep more easily with a fixed bed time.
Besides making your feel better because you’ll get more regular sleep, this practice has other benefits. For example, people with migraine and tension headaches have fewer pain episodes with regular sleep/wake times. Keeping regular sleeping hours is also highly recommended for patients with bipolar disorder, as it can help with mood swings.

2. Avoid caffeine late in the day. For some people, drinking caffeine in the late afternoon can affect them up to six hours later. To be sure, cut off caffeine at least eight hours before you want to sleep. Caffeine doesn’t affect everyone to this degree, but unless you know for sure, try to limit late-day caffeine. If you consume energy drinks, consider cutting back or stopping them.

3. Make sure your bed is comfortable and your room as free from distractions as possible. Pets and rowdy bed partners may need to sleep in other areas. Make sure the room temperature is conducive to sleep and there’s no noise or light that may interrupt sleep. Keeping the television on for background noise isn’t a good idea and can prevent you from getting to the deeper levels of sleep.

4. Don’t set your alarm for earlier than you need to. Many of us like to do this so we can hit snooze a few times. However, the most beneficial sleep, REM sleep, comes at the end of the night, and we are depriving ourselves of REM sleep by hitting the snooze button a few times before getting out of bed for good.

5. Have a bedtime ritual. Have things you do each night before going to bed that relax you and put you in a mindset to sleep. This could be a series of ablutions like brushing your teeth, flossing, or taking a warm bath. Other people may prefer doing prayer or meditation to quiet the mind, or reading.

6. Don’t nap during the day to catch up on sleep. More than anything else, napping will keep you from sleeping at night.

This is a tough one for me, since napping has long been one of my hobbies. Because I think of a good nap as one of life’s great joys, on some days I’m willing to risk not being able to get to sleep at night and take the nap anyway.

7. Don’t use alcohol to help you sleep. While alcohol does cause faster sleep onset, it also shortens the sleep cycle, causing us to wake earlier, and robs us of the important REM sleep. Over long term, alcohol can greatly interfere with your sleep cycle.

8. Only use your bed for sleep. OK, for sex too. But don’t live in your bed so that you become accustomed to eating, watching television, and working on the computer in bed. Your mind should associate bed with sleep, and not these waking activities.

9. Exercise each day. More than most other suggestions, this one can help you more than you expect. Even a small amount of exercise can have surprisingly good benefits. Don’t exercise too close to bedtime, since exercise can have a stimulating effect.

Sometimes people in early recovery find they want to sleep more than usual. This can be part of your physical recovery, and I think it’s best to listen to your body and allow yourself extra sleep time without feeling guilty. However, some mood disorders also make people want to “take to the bed” during times of stress and negative emotion. This latter situation may need medication if it continues or interferes with your life.

Insomnia Medications for Patients in Medication-Assisted Treatment

aaainsomnia

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.

Trazadone
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. [1]

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 (Seroquel)
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.

Ramelteon (Rozerem)
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.

Melatonin
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.

Diphenhydramine
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.

Other medications
Clonidine
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.

Gabapentin (Neurontin)
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.

Muscle relaxers
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.

Placebo
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. [2]

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