Sleep Disorders

29 May 2009

Dozing off dangerously

Doctors generally try to treat sleep disorders without resorting to medication. Not all sleeping pills are the same – some are definitely more addictive and dangerous than others.


Doctors generally try to treat sleep disorders without resorting to medication, and especially without the use of benzodiazepam sleeping pills. Not all sleeping pills are the same – some are definitely more addictive and dangerous than others.

How dangerous are sleeping pills?
Sleeping pills can be fatal in large doses and particularly if they’re taken with alcohol or anything else that can make you drowsy.

Benzodiazepams are extremely addictive and potentially dangerous – they can cause birth defects in foetuses and leave newborns with respiratory problems, among other things, if a mother takes them during pregnancy. Children shouldn’t use them since it may delay physical and mental development.

Because benzodiazepam has a depressant effect it can be dangerous to people with respiratory illnesses, depression, psychiatric conditions, muscle disease, porphyria, sleep apnoea, epilepsy, glaucoma, kidney or liver trouble or alcohol or drug problems.

Under no circumstances should you take sleeping pills not prescribed specifically for you. You must also follow the recommended dosage exactly.

Types of sleeping pills
There are mainly two groups of sleeping pills:

  1. Benzodiazepams (such as Halcion, Normison, Loramet, Dormicum, Dormonoct and Hypnor)
  2. The new generation of non-benzo diazepams (such as Stilnox and Imovane).

Help with anxiety and insomnia but they’re also used as a sleeping pill before anaesthetic, as a light anaesthetic, in the treatment of alcohol abuse and as a muscle relaxant.

Some benzodiazepams induce sleep almost immediately but their effect lasts just a few hours. Others work for more than 12 hours. The faster they take effect the more addictive they are.

Dormicum, Dormonoct and Halcion
Work so fast you could fall asleep before you have time to get into bed. Within a few weeks of using these fast-acting drugs – or any fast-acting sleeping pill – you could become addicted and experience severe withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them.

Rohypnol and Dormicum
Cause such severe memory loss they’re abused as date rape drugs. If you’ve been using sleeping tablets for weeks you shouldn’t go cold turkey if you want to stop. Wean yourself off the tablets gradually with your doctor’s help.

Tablets like Stilnox which are not benzodiazepams, are used just to help you fall asleep. You’re less likely to become dependent on this type.

Do any other products work?
The popular herbal remedy Valerian has a calming effect but its side effects aren’t well researched. Pregnant women, children and people with liver problems should preferably avoid it.

It should also not be used in combination with other medications that make you drowsy. There is anecdotal evidence that avenasativa (wild oats), lavender and chamomile also help.

Nytol contains an antihistamine that relaxes you. It shouldn’t be given to babies, children or pregnant women or be taken in combination with other medications that make you drowsy.

(This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in YOU Pulse / Huisgenoot-POLS magazine, Winter 2008. Buy the latest copy, on newsstands now, for more fascinating stories from the world of health and wellness.)

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Sleeping disorders


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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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