The drugs don't work: Prescribed sleeping pills are ineffective long term, study suggests

·3 min read
Sleepless young woman suffering from insomnia or nightmares close up, bad dreams, tired depressed female covering eyes with hands, lying on pillow in bed, feeling headache or migraine
Up to a third of British adults endure insomnia. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

We're all happier for a good night's sleep – but prescribed sleep medication may not ease insomnia when it's taken long-term, new research suggests.

Insomnia is thought to affect up to a third of British adults, with chronic sleep problems linked to depression, pain and heart disease, among other conditions.

Patients may be prescribed "benzos" like Valium or Xanax to combat insomnia, but studies have only demonstrated their effectiveness when taken for several weeks or months.

To better understand the prescriptions' longer term impact, medics from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston analysed 238 middle-aged women who had been prescribed sleep medication. They were compared with 447 women who endured similar sleep issues, but had not been issued a prescription.

Read more: Sleep for six to seven hours a night to maximise heart health

When assessed one and two years later, "sleep disturbances" were similar between the two groups.

medication
Prescribed sleep medication may only be effective in the short-term. (Stock, Getty Images)

The medics analysed participants of the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation.

At the start of the study, the women – average age 49 – reported their sleep quality on any given night on a scale of one to five.

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Women in both groups reported finding it difficult to fall asleep on one in every three nights, on average. 

All the participants also claimed to wake frequently on two out of three nights. More than seven in 10 also claimed to have disturbed sleep at least three times a week.

After one year, the average score for difficulty nodding off was 2.6 among those on prescribed sleep pills, as reported in the journal BMJ Open. This compared to 2.3 among the women who did not take the medication. 

Those who were prescribed sleep pills scored 3.6 when it came to waking frequently in the night, versus 3.5 among the participants not on the medication.

"Early morning awakening" was scored at 2.8 in the prescription group and 2.5 among those not taking the drugs.

The results were "consistent" at the two-year follow-up, "without statistically significant reductions in sleep disturbance in medication users compared with non-users".

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The study was observational, and therefore does not prove cause and effect.

Around half of the women were also current or ex-smokers, while one in five were moderate to heavy drinkers, both of which can affect sleep.

Data on sleep prescriptions was collected every one or two years, with no information reported in between.

Sleep quality was also self-reported, rather than measured "objectively".

Nevertheless, the medics concluded: "Sleep disturbances are common and increasing in prevalence.

"The use of sleep medications has grown, and they are often used over a long period, despite the relative lack of evidence".

Could be time for a cup of cocoa and a soothing podcast instead.

Watch: Establish a sleep routine to maximise shut eye