For many women, the answer is, unfortunately, yes.
Recent studies show that 3 in 10 women take sleep medication at least a few nights a week. In fact, the use of prescription sleep aids among women peaks from age 40 to 59, according to IMS Health, a health care consulting firm in Danbury, Conn. Last year, the firm said, over 15 million American women in that age range got a prescription for sleep medication – mostly for Zolpidem, the generic form of Ambien.
Many of us wonder how safe it is to take our favorite little pill every night. Are common sleep meds like Ambien physically or psychologically addictive? Can we simply stay on our regimens indefinitely or do we need to consider weaning ourselves off?
There’s a difference between addiction and dependence, says Ramadevi Gourineni, MD, director of the Comprehensive Insomnia Clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “If you need to take the medication to sleep, that’s dependence,” she says. “If you take it for reasons other than sleep, that’s addiction.” Even though there’s always the potential for addiction, she says, most sleep meds are not addictive.
Are common sleep meds like Ambien physically or psychologically addictive? Can we simply stay on our regimens indefinitely or do we need to consider weaning ourselves off?
Commonly prescribed sleep medications include hypnotic drugs like Ambien and Lunesta, as well as benzodiazepines such as Klonopin or small doses of antidepressants.
While Dr. Gourineni has seen addiction with Ambien, the problem is more one of dependence. “In general, studies show no problems with taking Ambien long-term as long as it’s done under the supervision of a doctor who monitors for side effects, it’s taken in the dose prescribed and it’s not combined with alcohol or other medications.”
In general, it’s a good idea to try to wean off sleep medications if possible because if you start taking it at age 30 you have many more years ahead of you and studies have only shown its safety over one year. “I have patients who have been on it for a long time who need it,” says Dr. Gourineni. “As long as I monitor them for side effects – such as daytime grogginess, sleep walking and night eating — most are OK.”
If you’ve been on long-term hypnotic therapy and decide to come off of it, don’t do it on your own. Seek the guidance of a doctor in a sleep clinic. There’s a process of coming off the medication slowly. “If you stop it suddenly you’ll have rebound insomnia, in which the symptoms return stronger than they were before treatment began,” says Dr. Gourineni. “It’s temporary but it can be very anxiety provoking.”
Dr. Gourineni strongly encourages patients to see a behavioral sleep specialist or go to a sleep clinic to learn proper strategies to come off the medication. “We counsel patients on problems they may experience, such as rebound insomnia, and teach them behavioral strategies to cope with the process. I encourage patients to learn cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation before they come off the medication.”
There are some very successful behavioral therapies for insomnia, with studies showing effectiveness comparable to medication.
For more information on the Comprehensive Insomnia Clinic, call 312-926-2650.