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Sleep Medications – Do They Really Work?

As a non “nine-to-fiver”, are you taking some type of sleep-medication to help manage your sleep-deprived shift working lifestyle?

Now I’m by no means judging you if you do, but so often I speak with shift workers who have become reliant on sleeping pills as a way to help them to fall asleep or stay asleep – particularly when having to sleep during the day when the rest of the population is up and about.  I mean let’s face it, our 9-5 “non-shift working cousins” rarely tip toe around the neighbourhood to make a concerted effort not to interrupt our sleep!

But do these medications actually work?

Not as well as you might think.

In fact many medications used to treat insomnia actually disrupt the sleep-wake cycle even further – which is of real concern for those who are already running on limited amounts of sleep.

One such type of medication includes benzodiazepines, of which there are about 30 different types, and go under various generic or brand names usually ending in “zepam” such as diazepam (valium) and temazepam (temaze).

However research has shown that despite these “benzos” reducing sleep onset (as in the time it takes to fall asleep) and wakefulness, these sleep medications actually worsen sleep quality by increasing light sleep and decreasing deep sleep.  This is because they act in a similar way that alcohol has on our sleep – in that it prevents the brain from entering REM sleep – otherwise known as rapid eye movement sleep which is an extremely important part of the sleep cycle that is involved in learning and memory.

So whilst you may feel like you’re sleeping when taking sleep medications such as benzodiazepines – it’s important to understand that you are undergoing a “drug-induced sleep”, and drug-induced sleep is not real sleep.

I’m going to say that again – a drug-induced sleep is NOT REAL SLEEP which is pretty important for anyone to know who is already running on limited amounts of it.

Many anti-histamines and anti-depressants are also often used to treat insomnia, however do so in a sedative way, and this is where I think we’ve gone wrong in so many ways.  It is my opinion, that shift workers do not need to be sedated as we are already walking around in a sedated state thanks to running on disrupted sleep.  What we really need is support for a “tired and wired” nervous system, to help our biologically stressed body move out of ‘fight and flight’ mode, and towards the ‘rest and digest’ arm of the autonomic nervous system which is absolutely essential in order for quality sleep to occur.

Of course there is always the placebo effect of medications too – which refers to any pill, shot or other type of “fake” treatment that despite not containing any active substance that can improve health outcomes, for no other reason in that the patient believes that it works – seems to work.  Kind of demonstrates how incredibly powerful the mind can be when it comes to healing ourselves and making ourselves well.

But back to the medications, and potential side-effects, because this is something that is rarely discussed in most well intentioned 5-10 minute consultations with our local General Practitioner or Physician, however can certainly have deleterious effects on our health in a number of ways.

Which is why, if you’re reading this post right now, please understand that some of these sleep-inducing medications come with side-effects, and are certainly not designed for long-term use, so always, always, always do your research and ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS before taking any type of medication.

At the end of the day, whilst there are a myriad of reasons why people struggle with their sleep (excluding our rosters), supporting a “tired and wired” nervous system using certain vitamins and minerals (also referred to as co-factors) that help in the activation or synthesis of our ‘sleepy hormone’ melatonin, can be a much more effective (and safer) strategy.

In other words, providing nutritional support for metabolic pathways inolved in sleep regulation is paramount, particularly for shift workers who are often depleted in many of these nutrients anyway, thanks to a “not-so-healthy” stimulatory diet, together with the stress of ongoing circadian rhythm disruption.

Audra x


Pagel, J & Parnes, B 2001, ‘Medications for the treatment of sleep disorders:  An overview’, The Primary Care Companion To The Journal Of Clinical Psychiatry, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 118-125.

Hall-Porter, J, Schweitzer, P, Eisenstein, R, Ahmed, H, & Walsh, J 2014, ‘The effect of two benzodiazepine receptor agonist hypnotics on sleep-dependent memory consolidation, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, vol. 14, no. 6, pp. 27-34.


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