March 8, 2024

Understanding the Side Effects of Sleeping Pills

Woman taking sleeping till
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch

Are you struggling with insomnia and considering taking sleeping pills? While these medications can provide temporary relief, it’s important to understand their potential side effects and associated risks.

In this article, we’ll explore the side effects of sleeping pills and alternative options for treating insomnia.

What Are Sleeping Pills?

Sleeping pills, also known as sleep aids, are medications used to help people fall asleep or stay asleep. They are typically prescribed for short-term use to treat insomnia, a common sleep disorder that affects millions of people worldwide.

There are several types of sleeping pills, including benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepines, anti-depressants, melatonin receptor agonists, and orexin antagonists. Each type works differently to induce sleep, but they all have potential side effects and risks.


  • Characteristics: Benzodiazepines are sedative-hypnotic medications that enhance the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, promoting relaxation and sleep.
  • Function: They work by sedating the central nervous system, helping individuals fall asleep faster and stay asleep a bit longer.
  • Potential Side Effects: Common side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, and cognitive impairment. Long-term use can lead to dependency and tolerance.
  • Risks: Benzodiazepines can increase the risk of falls, accidents, and cognitive decline in older adults.
  • Common names: Valium (Diazepam), Ativan (Lorazepam), Xanax (Alprazolam), Restoril (Temazepam), Halcion (Triazolam)


  • Characteristics: Non-benzodiazepines, also called Z-class drugs, are a type of sleep medications that target specific receptors in the brain to induce sleep without the same level of dependency as traditional benzodiazepines.
  • Function: They bind to the same receptors as benzodiazepines but have a different chemical structure.
  • Potential Side Effects: Side effects may include headache, dizziness, and gastrointestinal disturbances.
  • Risks: Non-benzodiazepines can also lead to dependency, especially with prolonged use.
  • Common names: Ambien (Zolpidem), Lunesta (Eszopiclone), Sonata (Zaleplon)


  • Characteristics: Some types of anti-depressants, such as trazodone and amitriptyline, are used off-label to treat insomnia by altering neurotransmitter levels in the brain.
  • Function: They help regulate sleep patterns and promote restful sleep.
  • Potential Side Effects: Anti-depressants may cause dizziness, dry mouth, and weight gain. They can also interact with other medications.
  • Risks: Long-term use of anti-depressants for insomnia may not be well studied and can lead to dependency.
  • Common names: Desyrel (Trazodone), Silenor (Doxepin), Elavil (Amitriptyline)

Melatonin Receptor Agonists:

  • Characteristics: Melatonin receptor agonists mimic the action of the hormone melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle.
  • Function: They target melatonin receptors in the brain to promote sleep onset and regulate the circadian rhythm.
  • Potential Side Effects: Side effects may include headache, dizziness, and daytime drowsiness.
  • Risks: Melatonin receptor agonists are generally considered safe, but long-term effects are still being studied.
  • Common names: Rozerem (Ramelteon)

Orexin Antagonists:

  • Characteristics: Orexin antagonists target the orexin system in the brain, which regulates arousal and wakefulness.
  • Function: They reduce wakefulness and promote sleep.
  • Potential Side Effects: Common side effects include headache, dizziness, and gastrointestinal upset.
  • Risks: Orexin antagonists are the newest class of medications approved for treating insomnia, but research is still very limited.

Common Orexin Antagonists:

  • Belsomra (Suvorexant)
  • Dayvigo (Lemborexant)
  • Quviviq (Daridorexant)

Can You Overdose on Sleeping Pills?

Taking more than the prescribed dose or combining them with other medications or alcohol can lead to an overdose. Symptoms of a sleeping pill overdose may include confusion, drowsiness, slowed breathing, and even coma.

It’s important to always follow the recommended dosage and never mix sleeping pills with other substances without consulting a doctor first.

Common Side Effects of Sleeping Pills

While sleeping pills can be effective in providing some insomnia relief, they also come with a range of potential side effects. These side effects can vary depending on the type of sleeping pill and the individual taking it.

Some common side effects of sleeping pills include:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Memory problems
  • Mood changes
  • Allergic reactions

In addition to these side effects, sleeping pills can also cause more serious complications, such as sleepwalking, sleep eating, and drowsy driving. These behaviours can be dangerous and may lead to accidents or injuries. These risks are especially high for older adults.

Do Sleeping Pills Actually Work?

The effectiveness of sleeping pills in treating insomnia has been a topic of ongoing debate, with evidence suggesting that their effect is moderate at best. While sleeping pills may reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and stay asleep to some extent, the overall improvement in sleep quality and duration may be minimal.

Research studies have shown that sleeping pills can help individuals fall asleep a bit faster and stay asleep slightly longer compared to a placebo. However, the improvements observed are often modest and may not necessarily lead to significant changes in overall sleep quality or long-term outcomes. Any benefits also cease if you stop taking the medications.

It’s important to note that the efficacy of sleeping pills can vary among individuals. While some people may experience significant improvements in sleep with these medications, others may find little to no benefit. Individual responses to sleeping pills can be influenced by factors such as the underlying cause of insomnia, personal health conditions, environment and medication interactions.

Risks of Long-Term Use

Photo by Heloisa Vecchio

While sleeping pills can provide temporary relief for insomnia, they are not a long-term solution. In fact, long-term use of sleeping pills can lead to several risks and complications.

One of the biggest risks of long-term use is the potential for dependence and addiction. Sleeping pills can be habit-forming, and individuals may find it difficult to fall asleep without them. This can lead to a cycle of dependence and continued use, which can be harmful to both physical and mental health.

Long-term use of sleeping pills can also lead to a decrease in the effectiveness of the medication. Over time, the body may build up a tolerance to the medication, requiring higher doses to achieve the same effect. This can increase the risk of side effects and potential overdose.

Alternative Options for Treating Insomnia

If you’re struggling with insomnia, there are alternative options for treating the condition that do not involve the use of sleeping pills. These options may be more effective in the long run and come with fewer risks and side effects.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI) is a type of sleepy therapy that focuses on changing negative thoughts and behaviours that may be contributing to insomnia. It is considered the gold standard for treating insomnia and is more effective than sleeping pills in the long term.

CBTI involves working with a therapist to identify and address the underlying causes of insomnia. This may include addressing stress, anxiety, and other factors that may be keeping you awake at night. CBTI also includes techniques for improving sleep hygiene and developing healthy sleep habits.

Other Non-Drug Remedies

Person sleeping well and waking up refreshed

Several non-drug remedies can help improve sleep and treat insomnia. These include:

  • Herbal supplements such as valerian root and chamomile
  • Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and yoga
  • Aromatherapy with essential oils like lavender and chamomile
  • Creating a comfortable sleep environment with a cool, dark, and quiet room
  • Getting regular exercise and movement throughout the day
  • Light therapy to regulate the circadian rhythm
  • Improving sleep hygiene practices
  • Addressing sources of stress and mental health difficulties

While these remedies may not work for everyone, they are generally safe and come with fewer risks and side effects than sleeping pills.


While sleeping pills may provide temporary relief for insomnia, they come with potential side effects and risks. Long-term use can lead to dependence, decreased effectiveness, and other complications.

If you’re struggling with insomnia, it’s important to explore alternative options for treatment, such as CBTI, natural remedies, and sleep therapy. These options can be more effective in the long run and come with fewer risks and side effects.

Remember to always consult with a doctor before starting any new treatment for insomnia, and never mix sleeping pills with other substances without medical supervision. With the right approach, you can find relief from insomnia and get better sleep without the over-reliance on sleeping pills.

Trouble sleeping? Contact me today to schedule your free virtual consultation and begin your journey to good nights and better days.

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