A guide to sleeping pills

Graphic shows a book against a background of a night sky. The cover of the book shows a jar with pills, moons and stars. The images represent a guide to sleeping pills.

Sleep really does work wonders for our health and mood, so it’s no wonder so many people turn to sleeping pills when they struggle to get enough shut eye. Whether you have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep or have poor quality sleep, you may have considered taking sleeping pills to help. Here we explore the types of sleeping pills available, the risks associated with taking them, and we also offer some tips for getting some z’s without them. 

What are sleeping pills & how can I buy them? 

Sleeping pills do exactly what they say on the tin – they help you get to sleep. But not all sleeping pills are created equal – they can really vary in terms of ingredients, strength and risks. 

Some are available over the counter (i.e. you can buy them in a shop or pharmacy) while other, stronger ones are only available on prescription from a doctor. The most common sleeping pills include: 

Over the counter:

  • Antihistamines – Antihistamines are commonly used to treat allergies but their active ingredient – diphenhydramine hydrochloride – also produces a drowsy effect which is what makes them an effective and popular sleeping pill. These kind of pills can be found in most supermarkets and pharmacies but should only be used a few nights at a time. 
  • Natural sleeping pills – whether it’s online or down at your nearest health food shop, you’ll find a heap of natural supplements claiming to help you sleep. Many of them include calming herbal ingredients such as valerian, chamomile or hops. Shop-bought herbal remedies tend to be pretty risk-free so if you did want to try sleeping pills, this could be a good place to start. 

With a prescription: 

  • Benzodiazepines – these drugs work by relaxing the mind and body. Although they can be effective sleeping pills they are known for being highly addictive and will only be prescribed short term.
  • Antidepressants – if you and/or your doctor suspects that your trouble sleeping is a result of trouble you’re having with your mental health, your doctor may prescribe antidepressants. While these drugs don’t specifically target sleep, they can often help – a side effect of feeling less anxious or depressed is often sleeping better. 
  • Melatonin – melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that helps to regulate your sleep patterns. It can be prescribed as a supplement to help you fall and stay asleep. 

It’s worth mentioning that some people also get hold of ‘black market’ sleeping pills either online or from drug dealers. This can be really risky as the drugs are often much stronger than those prescribed by a doctor and there is no way of being sure the ingredients are safe. 

What are the risks of sleeping pills? 

Life can feel pretty catastrophic if you’re not getting enough sleep, so it’s understandable if you’re wanting to try sleeping pills. But sadly, as with most quick fixes, they’re not without side effects. We spoke to Matt, a GP about the risks of taking sleeping pills: 

“Sleeping pills are not a magic remedy. If you can avoid using sleeping pills, I would really recommend it. Although they can be helpful in the short term (a few nights max), they can actually lead to more disturbed sleep in the long-term and can even lead to dependency.” 

He goes on to reveal… “The sleep you get when you’ve taken sleeping pills isn’t restorative in the same way that proper sleep is. In fact, people who take sleeping pills often wake up feeling really groggy, similar to how you might feel on a hangover.”

Other risks:

  • They can leave you feeling drowsy and/or dizzy the following day
  • They mask the route problem of your sleep troubles meaning it takes longer to get back to normal, healthy sleep
  • They pose a very high risk of addiction
  • Possible overdose

I think I’ll try to get to sleep naturally, any tips? 

Whether you’re dealing with full blown insomnia or the occasional sleepless night, there are lots of things you can do to improve your sleep naturally. The crux of getting a good night’s sleep is tackling any emotional problems or stress that might be keeping you up. 

Often when we work on improving our mental health and wellbeing, good sleep follows. So first things first, if you’re dealing with stress, anxiety, depression or any other kind of mental health issue, make sure you’re getting the support you deserve. Other things you can try: 

  • Practice good sleep hygiene like removing electronic devices from your bedroom, making sure your bedroom is dark and relaxing and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon.
  • Try some stress reduction exercises – swap out your evening telly session with a guided meditation, a little yoga, a bath and some slow breathing techniques.
  • Get some exercise and fresh air – there is good evidence to show that if you exert yourself physically in the daytime you’re more likely to sleep well at night. The same goes for getting outside and filling those lungs with fresh air. 
  • Check out the NHS SleepstationThis NHS service is transformative for some people’s sleep. It is free to access in some areas of the UK and in others you will have to pay (it can be expensive if your local surgery doesn’t offer it). Through a combination of CBT-I therapy and personalised advice, many people manage to treat their insomnia or sleep disorders.
  • Try practicing mindfulness to help you relax before bedtime. You can find out more about mindfulness here.
  • Have a look at the NHS resources on sleep which offer advice on how to get a healthy sleep routine.
  • Read our article on how to get a better night’s sleep.

The Mix would like to thank The Loop for their expert support with this article.

Next Steps

By Olivia Capadose

Updated on 11-May-2023

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