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Weaning Yourself Off of Sleep Aids

Millions of people in America suffer from difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, and as a result many have turned to prescription sleep aids known as sedative hypnotics. Though these drugs can be effective, they are not without their side effects. But when people try to discontinue their use, they often find the process to be highly challenging. Dr. Lawrence Epstein is a sleep expert and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, and he says, “People believe that they can’t sleep without them, and they stay on them for years.” He has been helping people to wean themselves off the drugs through a combination of slowly reducing their dosage and at the same time changing their sleep-related behaviors.

Epstein says that it is important that people understand that the process is extremely challenging, in large part because when they stop taking the drug they will experience a withdrawal response. “If you stop too quickly you can get rebound insomnia,” he says, “which makes symptoms worse.” There is the additional psychological problem that is actually created by the withdrawal symptom. People believe that they need the drug in order to fall asleep, when in fact it is just the body’s reaction to the drug being taken away. Though some people think this is a signal of addiction, Epstein says that there is a difference between addiction, which is compulsive use and preoccupation with a drug that interferes with life, and dependence, which is a simple belief that the drug is needed in order to fall asleep.

Stopping sleeping pills commonly causes "rebound Insomnia" Stopping sleeping pills commonly causes "rebound Insomnia"

Epstein says that if expectations are realistic and the process is done properly, sleep medications can be eliminated. The process must be gradual with a progressive reduction in the amount of medication that is being taken. He also strongly advises that the process should be done with the help and direction of your doctor, as sometimes stopping medication can have significant physical impacts, including seizures. “Each time you lower the dose, your sleep will be disrupted because you’ll have the withdrawal effect, so be prepared and know your sleep won’t be as good for a few days,” he said. The process can take weeks or even months depending upon how long you’ve been using the medication.

Being weaned off of a sleep medication is often most successful when it is done in combination with other tools that will ensure that you are able to sleep. The most successful methodology is cognitive behavior therapy. This is a psychological approach that identifies the things that are producing anxiety or stress around sleep and slowly eliminating them through relaxation techniques, recognition of things that are preventing sleep, and knowing how to address sleeplessness without the use of medications. Changes such as eliminating electronic devices and adjustment to diet and exercise can also go a long way in helping the process along.

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