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 What are sleeping pills?

Sleeping pills refer to a generic term for over-the-counter medication and prescription drugs that are used for patients suffering with insomnia or difficulty sleeping. Insomnia is a condition which affects around a third of the population and symptoms include waking up too early without feeling rested, not being able to get to sleep, waking up regularly throughout the night and constant tiredness. It can be caused by stress, anxiety, emotional or psychological issues, underlying health problems or side effects from medication for pre-existing conditions. This form of medication is classed as hypnotics and they are designed to promote or extend sleep. They can also be classed as sedatives, meaning they are calming and lead the individual to feel drowsy and therefore more capable of falling asleep. The most common class of hypnotics are in the class of drugs known as benzodiazepines or benzodiazepine receptor agonists. Common brands of sleeping pills include zolpidem, zopiclone, circadin, triazolam and eszopiclone.

How do sleeping pills work?

Over the counter sleeping pills are usually antihistamines which work by blocking histamine, a neurotransmitter which moves through our neurons, in order to make us drowsy. Milder sleeping pills are often taken as a way to deal with allergy symptoms more than to combat insomnia. In order to alleviate chronic insomnia and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, prescription drugs are used to directly affect how the nervous system functions. Prescription sleeping pills work by binding GABA receptors, which respond to neurotransmitters responsible for inhibiting the function of the nervous system, to stimulate relaxation and drowsiness, and induce sleep.

How to use sleeping pills

Sleeping pills should be swallowed whole, without crushing or chewing, with water. Depending on the sleeping pill prescribed, they can usually be taken with or without food but check with your GP or pharmacist for the correct way to take your specific medication and for the correct dosage and treatment duration. Because of the potency of sleeping pills, you should only take each dose when you’re able to get a full night of uninterrupted sleep. In other words, you should take this medication at least seven to eight hours before you have to get up to get the full benefit of the treatment.

What are the side effects of sleeping pills?

Common side effects of sleeping pills include:
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal problems, including nausea and diarrhoea
  • Persistent drowsiness
  • Allergic reactions
  • Sleep-related abnormal behaviour, such as driving or eating while not fully awake
  • Memory issues
These side effects may be worse in those who drink alcohol and individuals who suffer from sleep apnoea, as their breathing may become impaired even further when using sleeping pills. Prescription sleeping pills (and certain over the counter pills) should not be taken if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. They should also be avoided by elderly adults, as it can increase the risk of falls or injury in older individuals. Before taking sleeping pills, inform your GP or health care provider of your medical history. In particular, if you have experience of kidney disease, low blood pressure, heart rhythm problems (arrhythmia) or seizures. You should inform your GP of any current medication you are taking, including herbal supplements and remedies, and over the counter drugs, as these may interact with the sleeping pills and impact their efficiency. When used over a long period of time, patients may become addicted to sleeping pills which can cause dependence on the drug. This can have serious long-term health effects including memory problems, behavioural issues, mental health disorders and learning difficulties. If you are concerned that you may be becoming addicted to sleeping pills, it is important to contact your GP as soon as possible.

Can I buy sleeping pills online?

You can buy sleeping pills online with a prescription from a registered GP. You can fill out a medical questionnaire online which will be reviewed by a GP and issued to you if you are deemed suitable for the medicine. The medication will typically be issued within 24 hours of you placing the order.