Sleeping pills don’t work after a year or two, new study finds.

Written by John Elder

Relying on prescription sleeping pills to beat insomnia? They might help you reset your clock if used for a few weeks, but they’re often not the best option.

Because these medications do more harm than good when they become a habit, it’s generally recommended that people stop taking them after four weeks.

But the degree to which they actually help you get better sleep, particularly in the long run, is still being formally established.

Now, a simple new study has found that women using prescription sleeping pills to treat their insomnia got “no benefit” from the drugs in the long term.

The research, led by Brigham and Women’s Hospital Boston, found that “there was no difference in sleep quality or duration between those who did and didn’t take these meds for one to two years”.

The drugs examined in the study include benzodiazepines, Z-drugs which include zolpidem, zaleplon and eszopiclone, “as well as other agents mostly intended for other conditions (off-label use), such as quelling anxiety and depression”.

What happened in the study?

The research drew on data from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), a long-term multi-centre study looking at biological and psychosocial changes arising during menopause.

The women’s average age was 49.5 and about half were white.

The researchers monitored 238 women who started using medication to tackle insomnia. These were matched with 447 women who didn’t take these drugs.

The women were asked to report on their sleep disturbances after one and two years of monitoring.

Sleep disturbances were defined as difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakening, and waking up early and rated on a five-point scale, ranging from no difficulty on any night (1) to difficulty on five or more nights of the week (5).

Both groups of women reported:

  • Difficulty falling asleep on one of every three nights
  • Waking frequently on two out of three nights
  • Waking early on one in every three nights of the week.

More than 70 per cent of women in both groups reported disturbed sleep at least three times a week.

After two years there were no statistically significant reductions in sleep disturbances among those taking prescription medicines compared with those who didn’t.

This was an observational study, and can only establish correlation.

About half of the women were current or former smokers and one in five were moderate to heavy drinkers, both of which may affect sleep quality.

Still, the researchers note that sleep disturbances are common and increasing in prevalence – and the use of sleep medications has grown,  often used over a long period. This is despite the relative lack of evidence from randomised controlled trials.

For advice on how to safely stop taking sleeping pills see here and here.

And for advice on how to address insomnia when pills don’t work, see here.


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John Elder

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