Technology & Science

Sleeping pill options expand

Sleep disorder specialists say newer class of sleeping pills are safer but identifying root of problem important for long-term treatment.

Insomniacs may depend on sleeping pills to get some rest, but not all the medications are created equal, sleep disorder specialists say.

On any given night, nearly 10 million Canadians have trouble sleeping. After a few bad nights, insomnia can become a vicious cycle.

"Your concentration, memory will be off," said Dr. Peter Powles, a sleep expert at St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto. "Sometimes if you don't get enough sleep, you'll actually get a form of breakdown. Sleep deprivation is used as torture."

An older class of sleeping pills called benzodiazopines are basically tranquilizers that can be addictive. Side effects such as grogginess made doctors cautious about prescribing them.

Newer drugs like Zopiclone or Imovane aren't tranquilizers, but rather, hypnotics that are shorter-acting.

"If it's three or four nights in a row where I've not slept enough, I'll take one in the middle of the night if I wake up," said Kevin Clarke of Halifax. His sleeping problems began several years ago after he started a new job and his children were born.

Some family doctors treat sleepless patients with low doses of antidepressants. Sales of antidepressants for sleep problems have more than doubled in the last five years, according to IMS Health, a company that tracks prescriptions.

"We don't know the implications of taking an antidepressant if you don't have depression," said Dr. Meir Kryger, director of the Sleep Disorders Centre at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg.

Dr. Kryger said some patients have taken the antidepressants for as long as 30 years, but studies have so far been limited to following people for six months.

While the newer drugs may be safer in the short term, doctors still recommend people get to the root of their insomnia problem, such as pain or difficulty breathing.

At the sleep disorders clinic at Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Halifax, psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Rajda has patients keep sleep diaries to pinpoint problems such as napping and caffeine intake to help break the cycle of sleeplessness.