Sleep problems in later life

Sleep medication, other medication and over the counter remedies

Many people we talked to were taking prescribed medicines for a range of reasons such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems and arthritis. In some cases people were taking a variety of tablets for several different illnesses. Some people also told us that they had been prescribed tablets by their doctor to help them sleep, although this was largely in the past and only a few people were currently taking prescribed sleeping medication. Sleeping medication has changed considerably over the years and there are now a range of different treatment options to help with poor sleep.
Occasionally, people were prescribed sleeping tablets, for short periods of time to get them through difficult circumstances, such as bereavement, or illness. Generally people did not like to take sleeping tablets, mainly because they were concerned about how the tablets would make them feel the next day. Dessie described how the doctor offered her sleeping tablets when her husband died, but she decided she would wait to see if her sleep improved on its own, rather than start taking tablets regularly. Stanley was prescribed sleeping tablets after surgery but they only gave him three hours sleep so he stopped taking them.
Others were worried they might become addicted to sleeping tablets if they started taking them, so they said they may refuse them if their doctor offered them, or just take them on rare occasions when they have been sleeping really badly. Those people who were not worried about taking sleeping tablets wanted to be in control of how and when they took them, usually taking them when they needed to restore a satisfactory sleeping pattern, or if they knew they had something important to do the next day. Daniel took them occasionally when he was sleeping away from home for the night.
Some people were prescribed so many different tablets for health problems that they weren’t entirely sure what they were taking them for, but trusted their doctor with the prescriptions. Others wondered if the medicines they took for poor health, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, also made them sleep less well. Mary took a glass of water to bed with her because she got very dry in the night and she believes this is caused by the tablets she is taking.
Most people we interviewed did not want to take any prescribed medication for their sleep, but some had tried alternatives from the chemist. Some people took herbal or alternative over-the-counter remedies specifically marketed for sleep, such as Nytol, Kalms or Sleepeeze. While several people said that these remedies had been successful, others had felt unwell after taking them. Val said she had a bad headache the next morning and Sue B. said it had made her feel sick.
Other people had tried over the counter remedies, such as antihistamines or painkillers. Sometimes people tried several over the counter remedies until they found one that worked. Antihistamines were taken because they helped to make people feel drowsy and aided sleep. Painkillers were also taken to help with sleep, sometimes because people experienced a lot of pain in the night, or thought they might have their sleep disturbed by pain.

One further remedy several people also tried to help with their sleep was lavender, in several different forms, such as oil sprinkled on a handkerchief and put under the pillow, burning lavender candles before bed, and lavender scented pillows. Although some felt this helped them to relax, Dessie said that the smell actually disturbed her during the night.

Last reviewed September 2015.

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