The long-term negative effects of sleeping pills
Most people know that you are not meant to keep taking them long-term (as little as four weeks continuous use would be classed as long-term), but these drugs are very hard to stop: they may have a negative effect on your sleep cycles, which would then increase the likelihood that your insomnia would worsen when you stopped taking them. This is called ‘rebound insomnia’.
Prescribed sleeping medication may also have serious withdrawal effects if taken for a long time, which makes people anxious just at the thought of stopping taking it.
How do you give up sleeping pills?
So, if you are one of the millions who regularly take sleeping pills and would like to try to stop, it is understandable if you do not know how best to go about it. To make it easier, I have outlined a short programme below that you can follow to reduce the chance of having problems.
It is worth the effort: there are real risks associated with long-term use of sleeping medications. More than anything, the body becomes tolerant of them quickly, meaning their effects diminish over time. In most cases, doctors would agree that for chronic sleeping issues it is much better to find natural alternatives, and to learn better sleeping habits.
Please DO NOT STOP TAKING ANY PRESCRIBED MEDICATION WITHOUT CONSULTING YOUR DOCTOR. As I said, sleeping pills can have serious withdrawal symptoms, even if you have been taking them for as little as two weeks.
My 4-Step Programme: How to start sleeping without sleeping pills
Step 1: Preparation is key
The first step is to do nothing different with your medication at all, but to take steps to support your nervous system and create a good sleep routine, so that once you alter your medication, the body is better prepared.
This gives you a much better chance of success – you will feel generally better, suffer fewer withdrawal symptoms and already have better quality sleep, before you even start reducing medication.
So, for 6-8 weeks before you begin the withdrawal process, try the following ‘sleep friendly’ approach:
- No caffeine after noon, cut down sugar as much as you can and do not eat after about 7pm. The healthier your diet in general, the better. Healthy whole grains and vegetables will supply your nervous system with the nutrients it needs to function effectively
- Ensure you are adequately hydrated by drinking at least 1.5 litres of water a day
- Improve your sleep habits by going to bed at the same time every night, making sure your bedroom is comfortable and dark (no TVs!), and not using computers, tablets or smartphones for at least hour before bed
- Create a pre-bedtime routine that is not medication based. Whether it is having a bath, reading, listening to music or having a specific bedtime drink, the brain will come to associate it with sleep, which will help when you stop taking medication
- Take supplements to nourish the adrenals and nervous system: I would suggest our AvenaCalm, a good magnesium supplement taken at night, and a good vitamin B complex. Ask in a health food store for recommendations. Click here to search for a health food store near you.
Step 2: Consult your doctor or pharmacist
I can’t emphasise enough how crucial this is. Your doctor or pharmacist will know which drug, what dose and how long you have been taking it. They can then work out a safe withdrawal programme whereby you taper the dose off over time. If you take non-prescribed sleeping pills you do not need to see a doctor, but if you have been taking them continuously for over 2 months you should speak to a pharmacist.
Step 3: Transition to using natural sleep aids
The ‘gold standard’ for natural sleeping aids is a herb called Valerian. Valerian is a fantastic relaxant and has been shown to help people both get to sleep, and stay asleep. It is the obvious herb to try for people used to sleeping medication – in fact, in one small trial done with people taking tranquillisers, the authors concluded ‘that valerian had a positive effect on withdrawal from benzodiazepine use’.
Dormeasan® Valerian & Hops
Anyone who has stopped their sleeping medication can take Dormeasan, our Valerian-based sleep aid. For those still taking medication, it may be a good idea to show your doctor/pharmacist this leaflet about Dormeasan so that they can determine when in the process of stopping medication it would be safe for you to start taking it.
If you are someone who keeps some kind of sleeping pill at home just in case, try Dormeasan one night instead – you may be surprised how effective a natural product can be. Some people may have tried Valerian pills in the past and not been too impressed. Because Dormeasan is a liquid, it works fast (normally within 30 minutes), and does not need to be built up in the system, making it ideal for those who want a remedy to use on an ad hoc basis.
For those who can’t yet take Dormeasan, the AvenaCalm mentioned above is ideal, as is our combination flower remedy Night Essence. Health food shops also sell a wide range of calming teas and these can be surprisingly effective, so try as many as you can to find what works for you: look for ones containing herbs like Passion flower, oat flower, chamomile, hops and lime flower.
Step 4: Be patient!
The longer you have been taking medication, the longer it will take to return to non-medicated sleep.
It is important to realise that this could even take a year, and that your body needs time to adjust. You will probably not sleep wonderfully straight away – medicated sleep feels very different from natural sleep, and it will take time for you to get used to the difference.
You may sleep longer, sleep less, wake frequently, dream more, or feel groggy the next day sometimes. Looking after yourself as outlined in step 1 should help – as should the remedies mentioned above.
If you have any questions or comments on the process outlined above, please do post them in the section below. I would also love to hear readers’ experiences with sleeping pills – if you have come off sleeping pills, please share what worked for you (and what didn’t). Any tips, even if you think they are weird or wacky, are welcome!