Do sleeping pills really help you sleep?
More than six million adults in the United States take a sleeping pill at least once a month before they go to bed at night, and that number is increasing. But do we even know what they're doing to our brains?
Hey there friends, Trace here for DNews. Sleeping pills, or more accurately, sleep aids, are growing in popularity -- but are they helping us? A study from the CDC called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found sleep aid use increased in the first decade of this century significantly, with more women than men using sleep aids.
Sleep aids come in a variety of types, but most common are "sedative hypnotics" which means it's a pill which mimics being knocked out for a surgical procedure. Benzodiazepines (benzo-die-azapeens) and Non-benzodiazepines are in this type, and they're sometimes called Z-drugs because they all have Z's in them. Other than these, some people are prescribed antidepressants, or powerful antihistamines.
Some of these aids succeed in knocking you out by depressing the central nervous system function. Others like the antihistamines increase drowsiness. There's a newer drug class of "Orexin receptor antagonists" which block a brain chemical which keeps you aware and wakeful. Each of these drugs are great for knocking a human out, but being unconscious isn't SLEEP.
Professor Matthew Walker from University of California Berkeley told Probably Science if you want to "lose consciousness" these drugs are fine, but it's not natural sleep; it's simulated sleep. Drugs alter the "sleep structure" or natural patterns and rhythms of sleep. When you're sleeping, your brain is active, organizing your day, making dreams and cleaning itself. Most of the newest drugs will allow the brain into REM sleep, but they DON'T allow the brain to go through the full natural sleep process, which means the brain doesn't have a chance to clean up and process memories from the day before, cementing them for future reference
According to the National Institutes of Health, you should never take sleep aids more than three times in a week, and make sure you address any other mental health issues like anxiety or depression before taking a sleep aid. The problem is many sleep aids are habit forming, and accidental overdoses are possible, though they're usually not lethal.
A popular alternative to drugs is melatonin; a natural hormone which resets your circadian clock. Everyone produces melatonin from the pineal gland in the middle of the brain. When the sun drops, melatonin production ramps up for 12 hours, helping you feel less aware and awake. That usually starts around 9 PM. The problem with melatonin pills is they're not regulated by the FDA, so the amount of the hormone in the pill isn't standardized. If you take too much, your body may get used to higher levels than you naturally produce. This isn't a drug to take willy-nilly, because it won't MAKE you sleep, it only HELPS you sleep. Scientific tests done with placebos and melatonin found no difference between the two.
For people who don't like pills, psychological or behavioral training can help encourage sleep, and has the added benefit of encouraging NATURAL sleep rather than sedation. The training starts with things as simple as cutting caffeine six hours before bed, and turning off screens three hours before, as well as using redshift software like Flux to simulate evening sun on your computer screen.