Antidote: Sleeping aids

Marc Siegel, MD
Marc Siegel, MD

Americans don't sleep enough. Studies show that when we sleep less than six hours on a regular basis we risk diabetes, heart problems, anxiety, depression, and problems thinking clearly.

When it comes to helping a patient learn to get more sleep, I don't turn to prescribed remedies right away. I start by encouraging patients to sleep in a dark room, to knock off the iPhones and Blackberries before bed, to not drink caffeine or alcohol in the evening, and to teach themselves a ritual to slow their minds down.

Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonota are sedative-hypnotics, which increase a neurochemical, GABA, that slows the brain down. They are generally effective, though studies show they may not prolong sleep more than 30 to 60 minutes on average, and it may take you as long to get to sleep whether you take them or not.

The media has hyped such dramatic sides effects as a person unknowingly driving a car. Most recently, Tom Brokaw publicly said that Ambien made him feel groggy. On the whole, however, Ambien and the other medicines in its group are well tolerated and help many people.

But 60 million prescriptions are written for sleeping pills every year. Not all are necessary, especially when a physician just renews a prescription over and over.

Once again the media bluntly attacks a subtle issue—sleeping pills like Ambien or Lunesta, though frequently overprescribed, are helpful sleeping aids when used appropriately. The fact that they are not always used appropriately is more the fault of physicians and patients rather than the drugmaker.

Marc Siegel, MD, is an internist and professor of medicine at New York University and the author of False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.