Concerning new research reveals 37 per cent of Australians admit they have been dependent on sleeping pills or melatonin to help them sleep.
The survey of an independent panel of 1050 Australian adults found that 23 per cent of Australians admit they had been dependent on sleeping pills and 14 per cent have been dependent on melatonin to help them sleep for a period in their lives or currently.
Most sleep medications can be accessed with a prescription in Australia and the sleep aid melatonin was made available over the counter to over-55s in June last year.
Sleeping pills generally contain ingredients such as temazepam, which slows down the body and brain’s functions. Melatonin supplements are a synthetic version of the hormone that occurs naturally in the body and helps regulate sleep.
Now, a doctor is urging the public to be aware of the health implications of becoming reliant on such medications to induce or assist with sleep.
The survey was commissioned by Calming Blankets, a premium, science-driven weighted blanket. Weighted blankets are designed to assist individuals who suffer from troubled sleep, stress or sensory conditions that impact sleep quality.
The survey found that younger Australians are more likely to have used pharmaceuticals to aid their sleep: 44 per cent of respondents aged 18-30 years admitted they had been dependent on sleeping medication, compared with 32 per cent of over-50s. Specifically, 26 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds said they had been dependent on sleeping pills, while 18 per cent said they had been dependent on melatonin. This compared with 21 per cent and 11 per cent of over-50s who had been dependent on sleeping pills and melatonin respectively.
Davie Fogarty, founder and CEO of Calming Blankets, says: “Our study found that a surprising and concerningly high proportion of Australians are reliant on pharmaceuticals to aid their sleep. It is important for Australians to be aware of other alternatives that are safe and natural such as chamomile or passionflower tea, meditative exercises, reading a book or using a weighted blanket, which mimics deep tissue stimulation to discourage movement and create a calming effect on the user, can also help Australians sleep better.”
Dr Andrew Thompson, a registered doctor at leading telehealth service InstantScripts, warns of the potential health consequences of using pharmaceutical sleep aids. He says: “Sleeping pills should not be used long term. Several studies have even found a link between frequent, daily use of sleeping pills and a shorter lifespan. When people build up a dependency or tolerance to sleeping pills, they will need higher doses over time to maintain effectiveness. However, serious side-effects can occur such as addiction, memory loss and a higher risk of dementia.
“Supplements such as melatonin are generally considered to be safe and many regard them as a natural sleep aid. However, while it can be helpful in inducing sleep, it won’t solve underlying health problems or sleep issues. For instance, mental health disorders can impact sleep and require different tools and strategies to address them. Pharmaceutical sleep aids can potentially disrupt this process rather than help. Other issues such as sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome and insomnia also warrant an open conversation with a health professional before commencing any prescription or over-the-counter medicines.”
For Australians who are already taking a prescribed medication or suffer from a chronic illness, Dr Thompson advises consulting their doctor before introducing another supplement, such as melatonin. “Even vitamins or minerals could impact the efficacy of any existing medication they take and seeking professional advice is an important precaution.”
Dr Thompson shares five ways to help wean off pharmaceutical sleeping aids.
1. Talk to your doctor. For those who have been taking sleeping pills for an extended period, it is important to consult a doctor, who can establish a safe and effective program to wean off these medications. Abruptly quitting sleeping pills can lead to severe withdrawal effects, some of which can be life-threatening. The best way to wean off sleep aids is by slowly reducing use over time. Generally, doctors will halve a patient’s usual dosage, before reducing it further over several weeks, as well as reducing the frequency of the dosage, until they’re completely weaned off.
2. Commit to quitting. It is important to understand that weaning off sleeping pills is often a lengthy process. Practice patience. It is likely that withdrawal symptoms will occur. However, these symptoms are temporary and you will ultimately sleep better in the long run. Some withdrawal symptoms that can occur when weaning off sleeping aids can include restlessness, poor concentration, trouble sleeping, irritability and, in some cases, anxiety.
3. Practice good sleep hygiene. Establishing a routine around sleep will help to improve sleep quality. Establish a consistent sleeping and waking time, avoid caffeine and alcohol from the afternoon onwards, and avoiding exercise before bed. Investing in good bedding, including a high quality, durable and supportive mattress, to ensure one’s sleep environment is as comfortable as possible is also important.
4. Boost your body’s natural melatonin production. Reducing or eliminating screen time significantly before bedtime and dimming lights early can increase melatonin levels and help you wind down, inducing sleep more easily. There are also several foods that have been found to boost melatonin production, including eggs, cherries, fish and nuts.
5. Find safe alternatives to sleep aids. There are numerous natural sleep tools that are just as effective to help you fall asleep or improve sleep quality, and don’t pose health risks or side-effects. A white noise machine or a weighted blanket, such as Calming Blankets, for example, promote deep tissue stimulation, which can calm and relax the mind and body. Activities such as meditation prior to sleep and the use of essential oils, such as lavender, are also effective sleep remedies.
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