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When Counting Sheep Fails: The Latest Sleep Medications

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

A Tour of Today’s Sleep Aids continued...

These drugs aren’t all created equal: Valium, for example, has a much longer half-life (about 6-8 hours) and therefore stays in your system a lot longer than Halcion, which has a 3-4 hour half-life.

Antidepressants: Insomnia is a common symptom of depression. Thus, some antidepressant drugs, such as Trazodone, are particularly effective in treating sleeplessness and anxiety that's caused by depression, even though they are not specifically approved by the FDA for the treatment of insomnia.

"In those cases, the antidepressant helps treat the sleep problem, but is really treating the underlying cause," says Arand. Could your insomnia be linked to depression? If you think you have other symptoms, talk to your doctor about this possibility.

Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids: Most of these sleeping pills, such as Sleep-Eze, are antihistamines. This means they're somewhat sedating and can cause some drowsiness the next day. They're safe enough to be sold without a prescription, but if you're taking other drugs that have similar effects -- like cold or allergy medications -- you could inadvertently take too much.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reviewed research on these sleep aids in 2006 and concluded that they may provide “modest, short-term benefits,” but “sufficient evidence does not exist to support over-the-counter sleep aids as an effective treatment for insomnia.”

Combining Medicine With Good Sleep Habits

Roth suggests that it's time to start thinking about insomnia as a chronic disorder -- which he notes that it is in at least 10% of the population -- and treating it that way. "For people who have high cholesterol, you don't just give them a drug to lower their cholesterol and that's the end of it," he says. "You also work with them on other factors in their life that may be elevating their cholesterol."

Similarly, he says, sleep medications for insomnia should not be used in isolation. "You want to use them in conjunction with good sleep practices, good behavioral therapies, and treating accompanying conditions," he says. That means, among other things, practicing "good sleep hygiene":

  • Use your bed only for sleeping, not for paying bills or working on your laptop.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol for four to six hours before going to bed, and don't exercise too late in the evening.
  • Make sure your bedroom is restful and quiet. Get a sleep mask or white noise machine if you can't block out light or noise from outside.
  • Get up and go to bed at the same time every day -- yes, even on weekends!
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How much sleep do you get most nights?