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Are Meds Behind Sleepless Nights?

Many drugs can interfere with sleep. Learn what factors might lead to restless nights and sleepy days.

woman resting on couch

You may have trouble falling asleep, or maybe you tend to wake up a lot. For some people, changes in sleep — like getting sleepy earlier in the evening — may be a part of aging. But if you frequently have problems sleeping, it’s important to find a solution. Getting a good night’s sleep may help reduce your risk for health issues, improve mood and help with overall well-being.

Sleep problems could be because of an underlying sleep disorder or medical illness. Disturbed sleep could also be because of medications.

Talk to your doctor

If your sleep problems are ongoing, talk with your doctor. He or she will look for causes such as sleep disorders or medical problems that disturb sleep. And your medications will be reviewed. It’s important to discuss with your doctor all medicines you take, including herbal supplements and OTC drugs.

Your doctor will probably look at your lifestyle habits first. After that, he or she will look for signs of any medical problems that can interfere with sleep. These may include:

  • Heart failure, which can cause you to be short of breath when you lie down
  • Arthritis and other conditions that cause pain
  • Psychological disorders, such as depression

Your doctor may also check for the following types of sleep disorders:

  • Insomnia, which affects nearly half of adults older than 60
  • Sleep apnea, a condition that can cause you to wake up frequently at night because of trouble breathing
  • Restless legs syndrome, an uncomfortable sensation in one or both legs when you’re at rest

Your doctor may send you for a sleep study, which can tell you if you have issues like sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome.

Medications and sleep

Some medications or combinations of them can interrupt your sleep. Medications can unravel a normal night’s sleep in a number of ways. Talk with your doctor to check if your medicine could be impacting your sleep. But do not make changes to your medications without his or her input.

Some medicines can suppress REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement. It is the sleep phase during which we dream. It’s also the time when our brains process what we learned and commit things to memory.

Medications can also stimulate or depress the central nervous system.

Medications that can have a stimulant effect

These drugs activate the central nervous system, making you more alert and awake. They can make it hard to fall asleep. You may also wake up more often at night. Examples include certain:

  • Over-the-counter decongestants
  • Over-the-counter headache medicines
  • Beta blockers
  • Asthma drugs
  • Corticosteroids
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used to treat depression

Sedating medications

Sedatives make you drowsy, causing you to nap, if taken during daytime hours. This can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. Some medications used to treat depression or chronic pain can have this effect. Other sedating drugs include some antihistamines used to treat allergies. Your doctor can help determine if your particular medication falls in this category.

Diuretics

The effects of diuretics, which cause the kidneys to eliminate water, can last several hours. So you may have to urinate at night, which can interrupt your sleep. These medications may be prescribed for treatment of high blood pressure or heart failure.

What can you do to keep my medications from interfering with sleep?

Talk with your doctor. If your medications are causing your sleep problems, there may be several things that he or she may suggest. Your doctor may:

  • Change the timing of your medication. For example, if one of your medications is sedating, perhaps you could take it at night. Medicines that have a stimulant effect could possibly be taken in the morning and may even help you be more alert during the day. You may also be able to avoid taking diuretics within a certain time of going to bed.
  • Change your medication to something that would affect your sleep less. Aging can change how our bodies handle medications. A lower or less frequent dose might be needed.
  • Switch medications. If you are still having trouble getting to sleep, talk to your doctor. It may be possible to switch to a different type of medication.

Remember, don’t stop taking your medication or make changes without talking to your doctor.

Emily A. King contributed to this report.

By Louis Neipris, MD, Contributing Writer

Sources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep and sleep disorders. Accessed: May 4, 2017.
Helpguide.org. Sleep disorders and problems. Accessed: May 4, 2017.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Your guide to healthy sleep. Accessed: May 4, 2017.
National Institutes of Health Senior Health. Sleep and aging. Accessed: May 4, 2017.

Last Updated: May 4, 2017