This is the last in the psych meds 101 series; I’ve previously posted about antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and anti-anxiety meds, drawing on my perspective as a mental health nurse, former pharmacist, and person with depression.
While some of these meds are used primarily for sleep, many have other uses as well. The choice of medication for any given person will be based on their diagnosis among other factors, and sleep aids may no longer be necessary once the underlying mental illness is well controlled.
I covered these in more detail in my previous post on anti-anxiety meds. The choice of benzo will depend on whether you want it more for getting to sleep or staying asleep (i.e. shorter or longer acting). I’ve found clonazepam, which is long-acting, to be helpful in the past when I was having problems with waking up early.
Oxazepam and temazepam do not have the same degree of anti-anxiety effect as other benzos, but they are useful for sleep because their half-lives match up pretty well with a night of sleep. They are also are cleanly metabolized, meaning they don’t leave any active metabolites sticking around that can cause a hangover-type effect. The key thing to be aware of when using benzos for sleep is that if you use them regularly you will develop a tolerance and they’ll become less effective.
The so-called Z-drugs include zopiclone and zolpidem. Their main therapeutic use is for sleep. Like benzos, they act on GABA receptors (GABA is a calming neurotransmitter), but they act at a different site and cause different changes in the receptor. As a result, they are less likely to result in dependence, tolerance, or withdrawal symptoms. I’ve had moderate success taking zopiclone in the past, but I’ve needed 15mg rather than the most common dose of 7.5mg.
Histamine does a number of things in the body, but in the brain it promotes wakefulness. Blocking H1 histamine receptors results in a sedative effect. Most over-the-counter sleep medications include diphenhydramine, which is the drug found in Benadryl to treat allergies. A downside of H-1 histamine blockers is that they can cause weight gain when used long-term.
A lot of the prescription medications that may be used for sleep block H1 receptors in addition to whatever their primary therapeutic purpose might be. Trazodone is an antidepressant that’s used more often for sleep than as an antidepressant. It’s used for sleep generally at doses of 50-150mg, and needs to be taken at higher doses for an antidepressant effect. Tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline are quite sedating, as is mirtazapine. Interestingly enough, mirtazapine is most sedating at lower doses, and at higher doses becomes more activating. For me the sweet spot seems to be at 30mg. Antipsychotics that affect H1 receptors may also be used for sleep, such as methotrimeprazine and quetiapine. Quetiapine extended release can be useful if early morning awakening is a problem.
Gabapentin is an option but not necessarily the most effective one. It would tend to be most appropriate for someone who would also benefit from its other therapeutic effects, e.g. for neuropathic pain or anxiety.
Prazosin isn’t a sleep medication per se; however, for people with PTSD it can help tone down nightmares and thus improve sleep. It blocks alpha-1 adrenergic receptors, slowing down some of the sympathetic nervous system fight-or-flight-related activity.
Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the pineal gland in the brain, and it’s involved in regulating the Circadian rhythm, i.e. sleep-wake cycle. For some people melatonin supplements work well, such as people whose circadian rhythm gets disrupted by things like shift work. For other people, taking melatonin doesn’t do much of anything; I happen to fall into this category. Ramelteon is a drug that stimulates the same receptors as melatonin does, but I’ve never actually seen it used; melatonin is cheaper and more readily available.
This is a herbal product that may have some sort of activity at GABA receptors, although it’s not clear what exactly this is. There isn’t a lot of evidence to back up its effectiveness, but it’s worth being aware of as a non-drug option. I’ve tried it and personally didn’t find it helpful.
There are a variety of other non-drug options that are worth giving consideration to. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor for serotonin production. It’s the substance in turkey that’s associated with drowsiness, and can be taken as a supplement to promote sleep. Herbal teas, particularly those containing chamomile, may be helpful. There are also certain substances that it may be be best to avoid; caffeine is an obvious one, but perhaps not so obvious is alcohol. Alcohol may help you get to sleep, but it decreases sleep quality and makes it more likely you will wake up during the night. Sleep hygiene is very important, but I’ll address that in another post.
While ideally we wouldn’t need to take drugs to help us sleep, the reality of mental illness is that most of us will have problems with sleep at one time or another. Given how hugely damaging poor sleep is to mental health, I’ll take drugs over insomnia hands down. As with any kind of medications, knowledge is power, and knowing our options puts us in a position to make the best decision in our own specific circumstances.
You can find out more about these medications in my book Psych Meds Made Simple: How & Why They Do What They Do, available on Amazon.