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Long-term use of sleeping pills is harmful for you

During the pandemic, there seems to be an increase in the number of people reaching out for anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives. They can avoid letting the situation overwhelm them by staying productively occupied and socially active.

Self-medication seems to be a prevalent trend in India. I’ve seen umpteen people buy a prescription drug over-the-counter, aping whatever was given to a relative for a similar problem. At times, they just pester the doctor to write them a prescription when they could be taking an approach other than drugging themselves. And if the doctor’s asked them to stop after 14 days, they’ll simply ignore the advice and continue with the quick fix. Unnecessary use of sleeping pills is very common, especially in the elderly. But there are a lot of risks involved.

Insomnia isn’t the cause, it’s just the symptom

There are many reasons why a person may not be able to fall asleep or get sound sleep at night. It could be due to indigestion, pain, respiratory trouble or some sleeping disorder. For getting a proper diagnosis, one must see a neurologist/sleep specialist. People undergoing a stressful life-experience like loss of a loved one or some other disaster may be prescribed pills for a short duration. Others with anxiety could be referred to a psychologist and be helped through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

A long list of side effects

Apart from the risk to your kidney or liver, side effects like constipation or nausea are common. Depressing your nervous system may lead to confusion, impaired memory and improper body balance may increase the risk of falls. Benzodiazepines (Valium/Alprax) and pills with anticholinergic agents include an increased risk of dementia, depression or suicidal thoughts, if used over long durations. Residual side-effects include lower blood pressure or slow heart rate, weakness or drowsiness through the day and difficulty in concentrating, further impacting your work or social relationships. Newer drugs such as Zolpidem (Zolfresh) are considered to have lesser withdrawal symptoms but since elderly patients have a decreased ability to eliminate it from their body, accumulation over time may cause serious side effects. The maximum dose for an adult male is 10 mg daily, and should not be exceeded. Overdose can suppress one’s respiration.

Another kind of drug addiction

Just like narcotics, these are habit-forming drugs. Over time, one can develop tolerance to them, leaving no alternative but to increase the dosage. People who have a history of drug or alcohol abuse are more likely to develop an addiction. Combined, they suppress the brain function more, causing severe problems. However, if you already have severe insomnia and are on a high dose, do not stop without being under the supervision of a doctor. Stopping quickly can give a shock to your system.

Artificially induced sleep vs natural sleep

According to some doctors, sedation causes one to miss the deep sleep stage, when one’s body does all the essential repair work. Making a few lifestyle changes and ignoring a few sleepless nights is a better option than taking sedatives. Dr. Manvir Bhatia (DM, Neurology Sleep centre, Delhi) says, “When your body tells you it is time to sleep, neurotransmitters in your brain block mental stimulation and you become relaxed. However, when you are stressed, there is an increase in stress hormones and your mind races, making it difficult to sleep. Simply put, sedatives make you sleep by suppressing your brain activity and increasing the inhibitory system. The effects can often linger on in the daytime as well, making you feel lethargic and uncoordinated. As for senior citizens, their memory is already deteriorating. Instead of preserving it, why would they want to make it worse by getting hooked to pills?”

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, make sure you follow the rules of sleep hygiene and let your brain start to relax:

  • Switch off TV and gaming device an hour prior to bedtime

  • Keep it temperate and use blackout curtains

  • Say no to caffeine, alcohol and smoking

  • Develop a sleep routine

Additionally, you could try one of the following:

  • Relaxed reading or listening to a podcast

  • Deep slow breathing, guided meditation and yoga

  • Eating a light carb snack or having Chamomile tea

  • Go the naturopathy way, have Ashwagandha with milk

Dr. Bhatia has authored the book The Sleep Solution. You can consult her at

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