A-Z

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.
 

Stanley’s doctor prescribed him sleeping tablets at a time when he was recovering from surgery,...

Stanley’s doctor prescribed him sleeping tablets at a time when he was recovering from surgery,...

Age at interview: 93
Sex: Male
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So that was when you went to the doctor. But was that the time when you were sleeping badly.  Or was it after you had had the surgery and you got home and you were better?
 
Yes, that was about when I was sleeping badly. It is when you started, you don’t actually think about it, you are laying in bed thinking about these things and it puts you off probably sleep. But I started to train myself not to do it. And then surgeon said, the consultant said when you go to bed draw your curtains so you are in complete darkness.
 
Right and is that what you do?
 
Yes.
 
And does that help?
 
Oh yes. Yes.
 
So did you mention to the surgeon that you were having difficulties sleeping?
 
Yes.
 
And that is why he gave you that advice?
 
Yes.
 
Oh okay, so he didn’t say to you this is what you do to help you sleep. It was, it came from you, is that right, you said to him?
 
Yes.
 
Okay. Did he give you any other advice?
 
Yes. Well he put me on some sleeping tablets for a while, but I don’t… I take one and I probably only get about three hours.
 
So you are on sleeping tablets now?
 
No. No.
 
No you are not?
 
I can ask for them if I think I want them.
 
I see.
 
I have never had so many tablets in my life.
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.
 

Ronald was prescribed sleeping tablets to help him sleep during an illness, but didn’t like to...

Ronald was prescribed sleeping tablets to help him sleep during an illness, but didn’t like to...

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Male
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I did once. I had some sleeping pills. I think it was soon after the bladder infection which I picked up. I had a bit of a job then sleeping.
 
And did he give you something?
 
Yes, he gave me some tablets. I mean I didn’t take them for long because I found they didn’t seem suited to me.
 
Oh right and you didn’t go back to him?
 
No it seemed to right itself and so I just, you know, left the pills off and things settled down really.
 
How long did you take them for do you know?
 
Oh only for a short period, because they didn’t seem to suit me at all. I didn’t feel well in the day time after taking the pills for the sleeping at night.
 
It makes you feel sluggish and dozy?
 
Yes, you know, it was awful really. I don’t like taking any more pills than are necessary really.
 
Yes, because you have had quite a fair number of health problems as well?
 
At times yes.
 
So you are used to taking lots of medication?
 
Yes. 
 

Mike would rather not take sleeping tablets as he feels his sleep would not be natural.

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Mike would rather not take sleeping tablets as he feels his sleep would not be natural.

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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No I have never taken a sleeping tablet. I don’t really believe in sleeping tablets, because I think, I might be totally wrong, but my idea of sleeping tablets is that they’re not a natural thing that’s happening. If you are in some sort of drug induced state, I don’t think you’re sleeping.
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.
 

Daniel has been prescribed sleeping tablets, but will only rarely take them in case he becomes...

Daniel has been prescribed sleeping tablets, but will only rarely take them in case he becomes...

Age at interview: 78
Sex: Male
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Okay what about going to the chemist. Have you thought about getting anything over the counter or seeing a pharmacist to say I’m having real difficulty sleeping can you recommend something or bought anything at a chemist?
 
I wouldn’t because I’m on a certain level of medication, but I’ve been told once or twice by the GP that for instance there are certain painkillers I mustn’t take because I’m on Warfarin and also I’m on other tablets as well for my heart and that. And therefore I’ve been told I have to be very careful with that. So no, I’d have to go to my GP.
 
Now you have said that, it’s reminded me I do have some sleeping tablets prescribed by the GP and that would be the route I would take. Having said that I don’t take those sleeping tablets too often because I don’t want to get well addicted is the word that comes to mind. I don’t want to get reliant on any sort of medication, although I am on these regular tablets, anyway that’s…
 
So when did you get the sleeping tablets from your doctor?
 
How long ago do you mean.
 
Yes. I mean what prompted you to get those. Was it you going to the doctor about your sleep or was it him telling…?
 
Yes. You are right. I did say to her, it’s a while ago now, a long time ago now.
 
Was it before the sleep apnoea or after?
 
Oh no. I am talk about like say about two years ago.
 
Oh okay.
 
Or even a year ago. More like two years ago and it's not on my repeat prescription actually, interestingly. But I can write it on and the doctor accepts it.
 
Okay. And so you have got those but you only take them occasionally?
 
Yes. If I think I am not going to sleep very well or even in desperation once or twice, I have been lying awake and thought oh well it will take about half an hour to take effect, I’ll go and take a tablet. 
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.
 

Mary wonders whether the tablet she is taking for high cholesterol affects her sleep because she...

Mary wonders whether the tablet she is taking for high cholesterol affects her sleep because she...

Age at interview: 72
Sex: Female
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I wonder if it’s the statin that I take, I take a statin, because cholesterol caused my heart attack so that’s probably the most important medication I take, I don’t know.
 
Did they put you onto that straight away?
 
Yes. they told me in hospital I was one of the very unlucky people, that although I was ticking all the boxes to keep fit, I had that hereditary cholesterol.
 
Oh okay so that’s why you need to take the tablets. So since then what is it that’s changed about your sleep?
 
Well I just wake up once in the night probably or early morning. And that’s it or may be because may be I don’t do quite as much now as I did then. I don’t know. 
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.
 

Dessie has found that a herbal remedy works for her, but she only takes if after she has had a...

Dessie has found that a herbal remedy works for her, but she only takes if after she has had a...

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
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But then six hours, you say, is that completely right the way through and you don’t wake up at all?
 
No. So that is a very good night.
 
And how often do you get that?
 
A couple of times every… well what I do is I take a sleeping pill. I take a herbal sleeping pill, one of the Nytols and I take one about every eight or nine days and that gives me a good sleep for that night and may be eight hours even.
 
So you can get a really good night. They work for you?
 
They work for me.
 
As a lot of people say they don’t?
 
I know they don’t, I have recommended them to people and they have said you are rubbish you know, they don’t work for me, and I think well they work for me. And so…
 
That is interesting, so you’ll take that every eight or nine days?
 
Yes.
 
What prompts you to take it?
 
Well because I suppose I am thinking if I don’t get a good night’s sleep soon I am just going to explode with everything around me. And so trivial things like the grass hasn’t been cut, or I haven’t done my ironing and I need to go here and see that person and do this. It all kind of piles in if you haven’t had a good night. That is how it affects me anyway.
 
 

Sue B. tried a herbal remedy, but it made her feel unwell.

Sue B. tried a herbal remedy, but it made her feel unwell.

Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
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I have tried these herbal things and I didn’t get on with them at all. One I think it was called Nytol.
 
Nytol herbal?
 
I think it almost made me feel sick or something. Quite weird any way. So I have given that up. I haven’t tried any more no.
 
Not things like lavender pillows or anything like that?
 
Oh I have lavender on my pillow.
 
Oh you do. And that helps?
 
I think so yes.
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.
 

Mary has tried several different remedies for her sleep, but found by accident that...

Mary has tried several different remedies for her sleep, but found by accident that...

Age at interview: 72
Sex: Female
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I have tried Nytol. I have tried the herbs. I have tried various things I think like that. But they made me feel a bit funny. The only thing I really like are the antihistamines.
 
So how long have you been taking antihistamines?
 
Quite a long time I should think about fifteen years on and off.
 
Okay how did you find they worked, how did you find out about it?
 
I think I can’t remember how I found out. I think I must have had some kind of allergy and had them and found that they worked. With the asthma maybe I had hay fever or something and somebody gave them. But obviously some antihistamines don’t make you feel drowsy but I obviously choose the ones that do.
 
Yes.
 
And I think the doctor once gave them to me because I occasionally one itches in all sorts of places and occasionally I think you get prescribed Piriton for that. So that might have been one of the times when it was prescribed.
 
But you didn’t find the Nytol worked for example. The herbal Nytol?
 
I didn’t like it. No I don’t know why I didn’t like it. I think may be it made me feel funny.
 
Feel funny the next day or when you took it?
 
Hm. I have tried Melatonin too, because melatonin is something if you travel a lot is supposed to be helpful.
 
Where you get that from?
 
You can only get it in America. Our Australian relations gave me some yes.
 
Did that work for you?
 
That wasn’t bad.
 
Because it doesn’t work for everybody?
 
Not as good a Piriton.
 
It sounds like you have tried a few things. Anything else, like lavender pillows or lavender…?
 
I had a lavender pillow somebody gave me once, and I don’t know if it made much difference. I think pillows do make a lot of difference actually. 

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 October 2018.

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