Using Benzodiazepine to Treat Insomnia

In unique cases, prescription sleeping pills may help short term sleep loss

If you suffer from chronic difficulty in falling or staying asleep and have exhausted the use of behavioral therapy to help your insomnia, you may be interested in learning about the short-term use of sleeping pills. One class of prescription medications used under unique circumstances and for short periods of time to induce sleep is benzodiazepines. What are benzodiazepines? What medications are included in this category? Who should not use benzodiazepine medications?

To answer these questions, let’s review an excerpt from UpToDate—a trusted electronic medical reference used by healthcare providers and patients alike. Then, read on for additional information about what all of this means for you.

"Benzodiazepines are a type of prescription medicine that cause sedation, muscle relaxation, and can lower anxiety levels. Benzodiazepines commonly used for the treatment of insomnia include quazepam (Doral), triazolam (Halcion), estazolam (ProSom), temazepam (Restoril), flurazepam (Dalmane), and lorazepam (Ativan).

"People who take benzodiazepines should be cautious because you may be sleepy in the morning, which can affect driving safety, job performance, and decision-making. Additionally, do not take benzodiazepines with alcohol or other sedating drugs, and do not take more than your doctor or nurse recommends. Benzodiazepines are generally recommended for short-term use because taking them on a nightly basis may cause addiction over the long-term."

It cannot be overemphasized that, in general, the use of these benzodiazepine medications for long-term sleeping difficulties is discouraged. There is a high risk of developing dependence and addiction to these sleeping pills. In addition, these medications cannot be stopped suddenly due to a risk of seizure and other withdrawal effects. Instead, the dose must be tapered off when the medication is being stopped. The use of these prescription drugs to treat chronic insomnia is not recommended, as there are other options.

Nevertheless, if after careful consultation with your doctor, it is decided that these medications are indicated to treat your acute insomnia, you may wish to learn more about them. Here are profiles of the more common benzodiazepine medications used for sleep:

  • Triazolam (Halcion)
  • Estazolam (ProSom)
  • Temazepam (Restoril)

These benzodiazepine medications work by binding to the receptors of a chemical messenger (or neurotransmitter) in the brain called GABA. Neurotransmitters travel between nerve cells to conduct signals within the brain. By binding to GABA’s receptors, benzodiazepines promote sleep.

There are certain scenarios and people who should not use benzodiazepine sleeping pills. If you are pregnant, they should not be used. Benzodiazepine medications should be used with caution by people with depression; a history of alcohol, tobacco or drug abuse; in the elderly; or in those with impaired breathing, liver or kidney function.

As with any drug, there is the potential for common and serious side effects. In particular, withdrawal symptoms when the medication is stopped can be severe and even life-threatening. Therefore, you should discuss the use and discontinuation of these medications carefully with your doctor. You may also wish to discuss nonbenzodiazepine medication options.

Want to learn more? See UpToDate's topic, "Insomnia treatments," for additional in-depth medical information.

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