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Sleep is essential in allowing our body to rest and regenerate. When sleep quality is compromised, beyond feeling groggy and grumpy, there are additional health impacts which may occur as a consequence of ongoing poor sleep. These potential impacts include an increased risk of metabolic dysfunction, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, vascular disorder and neurocognitive disorders. 1 in 3 people are expected to experience insomnia at some point in their life. So, what can we do to maximise sleep quality when one experiences insomnia or poor sleeping patterns? One thing that often springs to mind is sleeping tablets! But are sleeping tablets safe? Do they actually resolve the issue? What about a more ‘natural’ option such as melatonin? Well, we are here to explore the pros and cons of both approaches.*

*Note: Please discuss your options with your general practitioner.

Sleeping Tablets: A Safe Resolution? Or High-Risk Approach to Sleep?

Those who struggle to sleep may feel tempted to go down the route of sleeping tablets. They are commonly prescribed for those with sleep disorders such as insomnia. This method can be useful for some, however, sleeping tablets are generally only recommended for short periods between two weeks to two months. Beyond this, the effectiveness tends to wear off and there is an increased risk of misuse, abuse and addiction, making it an inappropriate long-term solution (UCSF Health, Unknown).

Aren’t sleeping tablets bad for your health? Well, according to the addiction centre, there are a number of dangerous side effects which may result from their use including the risk of seizures and depressed breathing (Juergens, 2020). Other common side effects include drowsiness, light-headedness, memory loss, poor concentration and feeling groggy like you have a hangover. Some even experience side effects such as sleepwalking, sleep-eating and other potentially dangerous sleep-related activities (NPS MedicineWise, 2015). Additionally, sleeping tablets have been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular-related events in those with heart failure, therefore, their use in such patient groups should be re-considered.

Due to the addictive nature of these pills, many find it difficult to cease use and can have withdrawal effects and the re-surface of sleeping problems. Being aware of the signs of sleeping pill abuse is important when a loved one is taking these. Signs include:

  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Slurred speech
  • Unusual euphoria
  • Unco-ordinated movements
  • Unsteady balance
  • Reliance on sleeping pills every night
  • Cravings for use of sleeping pills throughout the day
  • Day time drowsiness. (Juergens, 2020)

These are just some of the symptoms which may indicate sleeping pill addiction and abuse. If you or your loved one is suffering from addiction to sleeping pills, contact the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015.

Is Melatonin A Safer Approach to Sleep?

Melatonin is our chief sleep hormone which is naturally released by the pineal gland in the brain upon the absence of light (UCSF Health). This is why most of us tend to feel sleepy at night!

So, what about those who struggle to sleep? Can taking melatonin in tablet form assist in increasing the ability to catch those ZZZ’s? Well, studies have demonstrated melatonin can help some people with their sleep. It can be used in two ways; firstly as a sedative to increase feelings of tiredness. Secondly, to assist in resetting your body clock! This secondary use may be used for those out of sync with the time of days, such as those experiencing jet lag or advanced or delayed sleep phase syndrome (Sleep Health Foundation, 2011). Side effects are generally limited to feelings of tiredness and may cause dizziness, nausea and headaches in some. (NIH, 2019)

Melatonin is deemed safe for most people when taken under the guidance of their medical professional, with far fewer side effects compared to a sleeping pill. Melatonin is not recommended for pregnant or lactating women, in addition to having some potential interactions with medications such as blood pressure tablets (Sleep Health Foundation, 2011).

How Can I Naturally Boost Melatonin?

Melatonin is not only available in pill form, but is also naturally-occurring in foods such as eggs, fish, meat and milk! The age-old theory of a good ol’ glass of warm milk before bed really does have warrant, due to its high concentration of a compound called tryptophan, which converts to melatonin and promotes tiredness. Other foods such as nuts, seeds, cereals, fruit, oils, wine and beer contain melatonin. Strawberries, kiwis, cherries and grapes, have the highest concentrations of melatonin in fruit, while mushrooms, tomatoes and capsicum top the melatonin-rich veggie list (Pereira et al., 2020).

Although these foods contain melatonin or tryptophan which promotes melatonin production, the research backing their use to increase sleep quality is limited. Research has been undertaken to determine the impact of milk consumption and sour cherries on sleep quality, with results indicating that these foods may assist (Pereira et al., 2020). Further research is needed to back claims regarding other melatonin and tryptophan-containing foods.

Other foods and drinks containing caffeine such as coffee and chocolate may be better avoided for some, due to the potential impact on sleep quality.

Lifestyle Strategies to Promote Sleep

Although medication and food may play a role in overcoming sleep-related issues, other methods such as behavioural therapies (e.g. meditation, counselling and breathing exercises) may also be helpful for some. This could practically look like establishing a night-time routine, such as going to sleep and rising at the same time each day, avoiding day naps and partaking in a relaxing activity prior to bed such as reading a book. Or creating a relaxing environment such as a dark bedroom. Other activities, such as exercise during the day may also assist with sleep quality (NPS MedicineWise, 2015).

The Bottom Line

The addictive nature and lengthy list of potential side effects associated with sleeping tablets make this approach higher risk and ultimately, does not address the cause of poor sleep. Alternatively, melatonin appears to be more conservative and safe when compared to sleeping pills. In saying this, either approach requires consultation with your GP to ensure the approach is tailored to you and your needs. You may even consider alternative approaches such as behavioural therapies and establishment of a sleep routine, prior to exploring medications. To get in touch with one of our dietitians for help making those diet and lifestyle changes, call us now!