If you have trouble falling asleep, you’re not alone.  More than half of respondents to a 2010 National Sleep Foundation poll say they often don’t get a good night’s sleep.

One result of all these restless nights is that the use of sleeping pills is rising.  Prescriptions for sleeping pills grew by 54 percent from 2004 to 2008, reports IMS Health, a market research firm.

If you’re among those who turn to medications to help you drift off to dreamland, you’re likely aware that sleeping pills are not risk-free.  Both over-the-counter and prescription pills may lead to troubling dependency.

Sleeping pills are usually safe for dealing with short-term insomnia.  For example, if you’re flying across time zones, recovering from surgery, or dealing with grief, sleeping pills can help you get much-needed sleep.

However, taking over-the-counter or prescription sleeping pills more than a few days in a row can cause rebound insomnia, which means you experience worse insomnia for several days after you stop taking the drug.  This rebound effect is one reason people find it hard to stop taking pills once they start.

Despite these risks, many people do benefit from taking sleeping pills.  For those with chronic pain, depression, or other medical issues that can cause lingering insomnia, prescription sleep aids may help them get the restorative sleep they desperately need.

Most of today’s prescription sleeping pills are sedative hypnotics.  They slow down the central nervous system, which helps you sleep.  Some sleep medications are better at helping you fall asleep, while others keep you from waking up during the night.  Some sleep aids are longer lasting or less habit-forming, but all have side effects.  Sedative hypnotics can cause memory lapses, hallucinations, and bizarre sleep-walking behaviors like driving, cooking, or eating, while not fully awake.

If you’re struggling with insomnia, your doctor can help you decide if a sleep aid is a good option, and what type is best for your situation.  If you only have occasional trouble falling asleep, over-the-counter sleeping pills may be fine.  Most of these sleep aids contain antihistamines, which cause drowsiness.  However, these pills can reduce your quality of sleep and cause next-day drowsiness, dry mouth, and even blurred vision.

If you can’t take antihistamines or if you have persistent insomnia, your doctor may recommend a prescription sleeping pill to use on an as-needed basis.

Since sleeping pills don’t treat the cause of sleeping problems, sleep experts say changing your bedtime routine or your sleeping environment is a better long-term solution for insomnia.  Simple changes like darkening your bedroom, lowering the room temperature, or using a white-noise machine to block outside noises can be effective for improving sleep.

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