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Sleep Medications

Walking on a Ledge: Sleep Medications and the Range of Their Effects on the Body

sleep medications

Sleep Medications

Sleep medications are specially formulated sedative-hypnotic drugs available by prescription and intended to treat intermittent or chronic insomnia. That means a tolerance can develop through prolonged use. Addiction to certain sedative-hypnotics is more frequent than not. Some sleep medications reduce the time it takes a person to fall asleep and others induce sedation as their primary effect.

How Do Sleep Medications Affect the Body?

Sufferers of intermittent insomnia can buy an over-the-counter allergy medication that contains diphenhydramine, which induces drowsiness. Diphenhydramine is an ingredient in name brand products like Excedrin PM and Tylenol PM. Statistically, diphenhydramine is not highly rated as an effective substance because users can develop a tolerance for it in as little as two weeks. It can be responsible for infrequent urination or delirium.


Prescription sleep medications include those called GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid-based formulas. These include heavily promoted brands like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata. Sleep is the after-effect of the activation of the brain GABA receptors in response to gamma-aminobutyric acid, the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter of the nervous system. GABA binds to specific receptors and that action opens ion channels to free positively charged potassium ions from cells or release negatively charged chloride ions into cells. Activation of these receptors is what regulates levels of wakefulness or alertness or relaxation.

Since the GABA process is an incredibly complex one and doesn’t work on all the brain’s receptors, not every medication works the same way. Side effects of GABA medications can include:

  • Behavioral divergences
  • Hallucinations
  • Sleepwalking
  • Short term memory loss
  • Parasomnias (sleepwalking, sleep driving, sleep talking, attempting to engage in sex while asleep)

Signs of the Benzo-diac

Benzodiazepines are now decades old. This class of drugs consists of very familiar names like Halcion, Restoril, Valium, and Xanax. Benzodiazepines are prescription-only GABA activators that are likelier to be abused than Diphenhydramine or antidepressants, and thus are prescribed less frequently.

Benzodiazepines have a different set of possible side effects which include:

  • Euphoria
  • Lethargy
  • Memory lapses during the term of use

Sleep-Wake Cycle Modifiers

Currently a single prescription drug resides in a class of its own, a sleep-wake cycle modifier called Ramelteon that directly alters the body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian clock within the brain that regulates sleep involves the hypothalamus. Insomniacs are able to get a full night’s rest, thanks to Ramelteon.

Since its overall purpose is a limited one that only works on a part of the brain, side effects related to Ramelteon use are few so far. Apart from a psychological dependence, which can result with use of any medication, tolerance and addiction seem to be off the list. However, prolonged use could affect hormone levels and reduce a man’s libido and make it harder for a woman to conceive.

Tricyclic Antidepressants

TCAs are chronic pain and depression drugs given to patients who experience insomnia as a result of those other problems. TCAs come with familiar symptoms and effects like blurred vision, vertigo and dizziness, difficulty urinating, and dry mouth. Six oft-prescribed TCAs are:

  • Adapin (doxepin)
  • Aventyl (nortriptyline)
  • Elavil (amitriptyline)
  • Pamelor (nortriptyline
  • Sinequan (doxepin)
  • Trazodone (desyrel)

How Do Sleep Medications Affect the Body When Abused?

As with other miracles of modern chemistry, sleep meds are potent drugs that have side effects which range in intensity relative to frequency and dosage. Addiction, dependence, and tolerance can result from long-term use or even temporary use. This will vary from patient to patient. Anxiety can arise in the hours between sleep. A sleep specialist can be recommended if a medication works too well or doesn’t work well enough.

How Are Sleep Medications Dangerous?

It varies by person, but sleep medications may induce severe allergic reactions like anaphylaxis and angioedema. Anaphylaxis is a potentially deadly acute allergic response that causes the bronchial muscles to spasm and swell. The inflammatory effects are triggered by neurotransmitters and obstruct the airways. Treatment must be prompt and requires a direct injection of epinephrine adrenalin to exceed the inflammatory mediators and relax the bronchial muscles.

Angioedema also involves rapid swelling of dermal, mucosal, and subcutaneous tissues, and likewise constitutes a medical emergency. Angioedema can also result in suffocation since the airways become obstructed. Epinephrine is also the go-to antidote except in cases of heredity angioedema, in which it seems to have little effect. A hydroxyzine-based antihistamine called Cetirizine is used instead.

Further possible allergic reactions to medications include:

  • Chest pains
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Heart palpitations
  • Hives and itching
  • Nausea
  • Rash
  • Vision problems
  • Vomiting

An Unusual Effect

One particular food to avoid when using sedative-hypnotics is grapefruit. The otherwise wholesome citrus fruit somehow amplifies the chemical load that is absorbed when the drug is taken. It can also result in over-sedation because the drug remains in the body longer than usual. This doesn’t work for somebody who needs to get up and go.

Sleep Medications from the DEA Schedule I and II

OTC Sleep Medications

While not the best strategy for long-term use, there are some FDA-approved non-habit forming over-the-counter sleep meds on the market. These are not sedative-hypnotics and should only be used temporarily and not as a tonic or in lieu of a prescription. OTC sleep aids don’t carry the risk of severe allergic reactions and other problems. There are side effects, however. While these substances declare a guarantee of eight hours of sleep, some users experience drowsiness for some time afterward.

Melatonin is a widely used all-natural sleep hormone. Melatonin supplements can also be used in fast release or time released formulations for the intermittent insomniac or someone unable to get to sleep. Melatonin use is not without risk: seizures have occurred in children who suffer from brain disorder. It is not recommended to people who use blood thinners.

How Does One Go About Quitting Sleep Medications?

Quitting sleep medications will be as rough or easy as quitting cigarettes, alcohol, or caffeine. A fairly consistent schedule that consists of equal parts sleep, work, and leisure with some exercise should help significantly. Regular exercise like power walking, bicycling, weight training and even yoga will erode anxiety and stress that may interfere with getting to sleep. Keep a uniform schedule and try not to reset the usual bedtime. Coffee, alcohol, and large meals should be cut off generally four hours before bedtime. Exercise within three hours of bedtime may also be a problem. Reading a book is a good method to make the eyelids heavy. The bedroom’s ambient temperature shouldn’t be too cold, nor hot or the comfort threshold will be harder to reach.

Benefits of Inpatient Sleep Disorder and Recovery Treatment

Inpatient sleep disorder treatments can pinpoint deeper rooted problems like parasomnias, narcolepsy, and circadian rhythm divergences. A comfortable environment, modern diagnostic equipment, continuous monitoring, and prescribed rest will diagnose most problems. Further therapeutic methods like massage and gentle exercise may be components of the program. While a sleep disorder sounds rather harmless on the surface, not treating one can yield a conveyor belt of hazardous, and potentially deadly, effects.

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