Sleep Medications – Do They Really Work?

What Every Shift Worker Needs To Know.

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.

Kiwi Fruit, Insomnia and Sleep:

Why Food Really Is Medicine.

Kiwi juice in a glass and alarm clock on a light background

As a nutritional medicine student (and former shift worker of 20 + years), I’m always on the look out for ways to nourish the sleep-deprived body of someone who happens to be working 24/7.

Unfortunately when it comes to finding ways to improve our sleep, many of us head down the track of taking sedatives – purely out of desperation, which may include benzo-diazepines, antihistamines, alcohol or even the hormone melatonin. However studies have shown over time, these often become addictive along with having many side-effects.

Food, on the other hand, is just that – food.

Nourishment for the body, without all the nasty side effects.

As Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, said so famously all those years ago – “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”.

Which is why today’s post is all about one food in particular that’s actually going to help enhance your sleep – the kiwifruit.

Kiwifruits have been used to treat diseases, particularly in the digestive tract, as far back as 700 BC, but recent studies have shown they can also help with sleep disorders such as insomnia.

Music to the ears for anyone working 24/7.

In a clinical trial involving twenty-four subjects between the ages of 20 and 55 years, who were asked to consume 2 medium-size kiwifruit 1 hour before bed every night for 4 weeks, results showed improved sleep onset, duration, and efficiency.

And they did this by the following mechanisms of action:

  • Reducing oxidative stress – patients who have problems sleeping (such as those suffering with insomnia or experience circadian rhythm dysregulation as a result of working shift work), tend to exhibit increased levels of oxidative stress.  In order to counteract oxidative stress, the body requires antioxidants to help repair the damage and kiwifruits are abundant in the antioxidants vitamin C, E, flavonoids, anthocyanins, and carotenoids.
  • Improving the REM phase of sleep – low levels of serotonin can lead to insomnia as it is an end product of L-trypthophan metabolism, which is linked to the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep. Kiwifruits contain approximately twice the concentration of serotonin as tomatoes so are a great food-as-medicine tool to help reduce insomnia.
  • High in folate – folate deficiency is common in patients who are experiencing insomnia, and although folates may be abundant in the diet, this water-soluble B vitamin is readily destroyed by cooking or processing.  As kiwifruit is consumed raw, it has a much higher bioavailability and likelihood of improving sleep quality.

So whilst this particular study was quite small, if you’re going through a phase where you’re struggling with ongoing sleep deprivation, then you may want to try consuming 2 kiwifruit, 1 hour before bedtime and see how you go.  You could even whip yourself up a kiwifruit smoothie made on almond milk, which also contains the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin.

It certainly beats taking a handful of tablets which may become addictive, or worse still, end up giving you some nasty side effects later down the track!

Happy snoozing!

Audra x


Reference:  Lin, H, Tsai, P, Fang, S & Liu, J 2011, ‘Effect of kiwifruit consumption on sleep quality in adults with sleep problems’, Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 169-74.