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When Counting Sheep Fails: The Latest Sleep Medications

Is the new generation of sleeping pills the answer for insomnia?

New Sleeping Pills Aren’t Right for Everyone

"If you have insomnia due to sleep-related breathing disorders [sleep apnea] or restless legs syndrome, for example, these drugs won't address your underlying problem," says Roth. Pregnant women, of course, shouldn't take these medications. And if you're "on call," frequently getting up in the middle of the night for work or for a child, they might not work for you.

They’ve also recently been linked to some unusual side effects. In March 2007, the FDA issued a warning that prescription sleep medications like Ambien and Lunesta can cause bizarre behaviors during sleep. Some people have reported that they drove cars and went on eating binges -- literally cleaning out the refrigerator with no awareness of taking a bite. The FDA has asked drugmakers to strengthen their product labels with warnings about these side effects. The FDA notes that severe allergic reactions and facial swelling have also been linked to these medications.

If your doctor prescribes one of these drugs for you, be aware that these side effects are a possibility. Consider asking your partner or other adults who live with you to keep an eye out for nocturnal disturbances.

A Tour of Today’s Sleep Aids

The array of prescription sleep medications available to today’s groggy insomniac can be truly bewildering. Which one might be right for you? The best person to answer that is your doctor, or a specialized sleep center if your struggles have left your doctor baffled. But to give you an idea of some questions to ask, here is a quick introduction to the medications now on the market:

Rozerem: If you’ve seen the “your dreams miss you” ads featuring a bedraggled insomniac talking to Abraham Lincoln and a chess-playing beaver, you’ve heard about Rozerem. Rozerem is the first in a new class of drugs designed to act on the body’s melatonin receptors. (Melatonin is a hormone that affects sleep by helping to regulate the body’s circadian rhythms.)

Rozerem is more specifically targeted than regular melatonin supplements, specifically affecting the sleep center of your brain. Its biggest plus: safety. Resesarch shows Rozerem has no side effects or withdrawal effects. “It’s a very safe drug to use, so particularly for people who are on other medications or who may have a concern about substance abuse, it’s a great drug,” says Arand. (But Rozerem is also included in the FDA’s list of drugs that should include a warning about unusual sleep behaviors.)

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How much sleep do you get most nights?