The Uses and Warnings of Various Sleep Aids
Let's face it, sometimes it's very hard to go to sleep and a nice little pill makes it that much easier. However, do you know what effects that medication has on you? Do you know the effects of mixing these various sleep aids? If not, you could potentially put yourself in harm's way of an accidental overdose, adverse reaction, or more. Read more to find out about various sleep aids and important information to know about each.
Antihistamines are medications normally reserved for allergic reactions. However, they also can add benefit as a sleep aid due to the fact that histamine is a chemical in the brain that induces wakefulness, so blocking its function can help induce sleep. There are two generations of antihistamines, first and second. First generation induces drowsiness, while second generation does not.
Examples of first generation antihistamines include:
- Vicks Nyquil
- Tylenol Cold and Cough Nighttime
- Actifed Cold
It's important that you're familiar with these names in case you weren't aware that you were taking an antihistamine.
Using Antihistamines as a sleep aid
Although Antihistamines have a drowsy side-effect, they are not good primary medications for sleep aids. They are to be used in allergic reactions, and their overuse can cause some side effects. Tolerance to these drugs can develop quickly, which means that the recommended dose will no longer make you sleepy if they are used regularly. Diphenhydramine also has anticholinergic effects which means they are not good medications for older populations. Anticholinergics have a long list of side effects that can affect many, including daytime sleepiness, dry mouth, and urinary retention which can lead to urinary tract infections.
Benzodiazepines are a class of drug prescribed for many reasons. The majority of prescriptions are for anxiety, but insomnia is also a disorder treated by benzos. Benzos are good drugs because they rarely cause respiratory or CNS depression by themselves, therefore the are a safe choice. Benzos work by aiding a neurotransmitter in the brain, GABA, which is responsible inhibiting excitation in the brain. This means that benzodiazepines help to calm the brain.
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Lorazepam (Ativan)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin)
Common Benzodiazepines for Sleep
- Estazolam (Prosom)
- Flurazepam (Dalmane)
- Quazepam (Doral)
- Temazepam (Restoril)
- Triazolam (Halcion)
Again, it's important to recognize any names on this list so you don't take more than one. Benzos are easy to remember because they all end in AM, so if you see AM at the end of a name, most likely it's a benzodiazepine. All benzodiazepines require a prescription, so if you are struggling with insomnia, go see your physician. Do not take a benzo from someone else's prescription as doses are personalized.
Warnings of Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines do have an addictive quality, and are recommended for short term use. Use of these drugs over four weeks can lead to tolerance and addiction, and abrupt withdrawal can come with severe side effects. Please take note of the dosage and do not exceed the amount or mix medications.
Barbiturates are another sedative that also work on the GABA receptors, but are much more potent than benzodiazepines. Barbiturates depress the central nervous system and work as a hypno-sedative. This means that it us used to make people unconscious for sleep, as an anesthetic for surgery, seizures and headache.
- amobarbital (Amytal)
- secobarbital (Seconal)
- butabarbital (Butisol)
- pentobarbital (Nembutal)
- belladonna and phenobarbital (Donnatal)
- butalbital/acetaminophen/caffeine (Esgic, Fioricet)
- butalbital/aspirin/caffeine (Fiorinal Ascomp, Fortabs)
It's important to make sure that you recognize these names so that if you currently use them, you are aware of their dangers.
Warning for Barbiturates
Barbiturates are the culprits in many accidental overdoses, including Marilyn Monroe. Their sedative effects are so strong, that they can cause respiratory depression, meaning your brain no longer sends signals to your lungs to breathe. If you're unconscious, you won't be aware of that, and could suffer a traumatic or lethal overdose. Barbiturates are also extremely habit forming, so if you have a history of addiction then please take caution with these, or consider another class of drugs. If you are prescribed these, it's essential to take the prescribed dosage and then stop medications upon instruction from your physician.
Alcohol is not a prescribed medicine, although it does have sedative effects and can help with sleep. Alcohol (EtOH) also works on the GABA receptors, similar to barbiturates and benzodiazepines. In addition to the sedative effects of alcohol, it also causes dizziness, delirium, intoxication, impairment, ataxia (clumsiness), dehydration, and nausea/vomiting to name a few. Sleep after alcohol may feel deep, but in actuality, alcohol actually impairs good sleep. It doesn't allow the brain to cycle through the different stages of sleep that is required for adequate rest. There is no REM stage, which is essential for a good night's rest.
Dangers of Alcohol
Alcohol abuse is prevalent issue in the United States. Excessive alcohol use can create dependency, and can be very difficult to reduce or stop use. In fact, abrupt cessation of alcohol after chronic heavy use can lead to withdrawal symptoms which ran range from mild irritability to delirium tremens and death. This is not a safe option to consider for addressing insomnia, and consistent use of alcohol as a sleep aid is very dangerous.
The dangers of mixing sleep aids
The above mentioned sleep aids can be very dangerous in their own right, if they are overused. Certain antihistamines should not be used as a sleep aid, and neither should alcohol. OTC options including Unisom, Benadryl, Z-Quil are sedating antihistamines cleared for use as a sleep aid. It is imperative that you do not mix these with other sedatives, including alcohol. So if you're going to take a sleep aid, skip the glass of wine or can of beer. You can have an adverse reaction that can be very dangerous.
Benzodiazepines, Barbiturates, and alcohol all work on the GABA receptors. This means that combination of any of these medications can lead to excessive GABA activity, which will lead to severe CNS depression. This is very dangerous and is the cause of many accidental overdoses involving these sedatives. It's essential that you recognize the type of prescription that you have for insomnia, adhere to the dosage, and avoid mixing them in any way. If you are going to drink, plan on not taking your other sleep aids to avoid any problems.
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