Should I Take Medication for a Sleep Disorder?

January 3, 2024 · John Gallagher

Do I Need Medication for a Sleep Disorder?

Everyone is entitled to a good night’s sleep. But that doesn’t mean that sleep comes easily for everyone. In fact, an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans face a sleep disorder. 33% of Americans have trouble getting to sleep each night.

For many people, getting a good night of sleep is far from a given. Sleep disorders can negatively impact sleep health and keep you from finding your healthiest possible sleep pattern.

What is a Sleep Disorder?

A sleep disorder, also known as a sleep disturbance or sleep condition, is a medical or psychological condition that disrupts normal sleep patterns. Sleep disorders can affect the quality, duration, timing, or regularity of sleep. It can prevent you from getting to sleep, falling asleep or staying asleep. It can also prevent you from experiencing the full benefits of restorative sleep. These conditions can significantly impact overall health, well-being, and daily productivity.

There are more than 80 different sleep disorders. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Insomnia: Insomnia is characterized by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early and not being able to return to sleep. It can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) and is often associated with daytime fatigue, irritability, and impaired cognitive function.
  • Sleep apnea: Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person's breathing is interrupted repeatedly during sleep. It can lead to loud snoring, frequent awakenings, and serious health issues such as cardiovascular problems. There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, where the airway is blocked, and central sleep apnea, where the brain fails to send the appropriate signals to the muscles that control breathing. 
  • Narcolepsy: Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the day. People with narcolepsy may also experience cataplexy (sudden muscle weakness or paralysis), hallucinations, and sleep paralysis.
  • Parasomnias: Parasomnias are abnormal behaviors or experiences that occur during sleep. Examples include sleepwalking, night terrors, and REM sleep behavior disorder (acting out dreams during REM sleep).
  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS): RLS is a condition characterized by an irresistible urge to move the legs, often accompanied by uncomfortable sensations, especially when at rest or during the evening. RLS can disrupt sleep onset and maintenance.
  • Hypersomnia: Hypersomnia refers to excessive daytime sleepiness and prolonged nighttime sleep, despite getting enough sleep. Conditions like idiopathic hypersomnia and Kleine-Levin syndrome fall into this category.

There are various other sleep disorders, including sleep-related eating disorder and non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder.

How Do Doctors Treat Sleep Disorders?

When you find a good sleep specialist, they understand that every sleep disorder, and every patient, represents a different situation. There isn’t a single treatment method for sleep disorders. Instead, doctors will consider your complete health profile before making any recommendations.

The first step in treating a sleep disorder is diagnosing it. You can expect your doctor to ask you a number of questions about your sleep situation — including your bedroom environment, your evening and morning habits, and the quality of your sleep materials.

They might also ask you questions about some of the main factors affecting your sleep health. For example, they might ask you about your caffeine intake, your general diet, your exercise habits, your nicotine and alcohol intake, and your exposure to blue light. Each of these lifestyle factors can intensify features of an underlying sleep disorder.

Once your doctor has a better grasp on your condition, they might recommend one or more of the following treatment types:

  • Lifestyle and behavioral recommendations: Encouraging healthy sleep habits such as maintaining a regular sleep schedule, creating a comfortable sleep environment, and avoiding stimulants before bedtime.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I): A structured therapy that helps individuals identify and change the thoughts and behaviors contributing to their sleep problems.
  • Prescription medication: Doctors may prescribe medications such as sedative-hypnotics like benzodiazepines to improve sleep.
  • Melatonin supplements: Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. Supplements may be recommended for certain sleep disorders, such as delayed sleep phase disorder.
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy: CPAP is a common treatment for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). It involves wearing a mask that delivers a continuous stream of air to keep the airway open during sleep.
  • Light therapy: Light therapy, or phototherapy, is used to treat circadian rhythm sleep disorders, such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or shift work sleep disorder.

In more complex cases, your doctor might refer you to a sleep specialist who can provide recommendations for your specific condition.

Do I Need Medication for My Sleep Disorder?

In some cases, doctors might recommend medication for your sleep disorder. Often, medication is prescribed alongside other treatment methods that might include therapy and lifestyle changes.

Here are some common medications prescribed for sleep disorders:

  • Anti-Parkinsonian drugs treat RLS and nocturnal myoclonus syndrome, jerking leg movements during periods of sleep.
  • Benzodiazepines are hypnotics like alprazolam, Lorazepam, and clonazepam that typically address parasomnias.
  • Anticonvulsants address sleep disorders like RLS and insomnia related to bipolar disorder, through medications like carbamazepine and valproate.
  • Antinarcoleptics are medications like methylphenidate and modafinil that help people with excessive daytime drowsiness sustain their energy levels.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) sleep medications are more mild forms of medication that you can find without a prescription. Antihistamines are one common form of OTC medication used to treat sleep disorders, though they can lead to daytime drowsiness.

If you think you might have a sleep disorder, it’s important to visit a licensed medical professional. They will make the final decision as to whether or not you receive medication for your situation.

Whether or not you receive medication for a sleep disorder, there are other things you can do to take more accountability for your own sleep health. Beyond improving your diet and regulating your exercise, you can improve the quality of the sleep materials you use. This means investing in pillows and blankets that make you look forward to your evening sleep routine.

Improving your sleep routine also means choosing a high-quality mattress — and that’s where we’ve got you covered. At Mattress Warehouse, we’ve got the mattress selection process down to a no-pressure science. Our bedMATCH sleep diagnostic program analyzes all the ingredients that contribute to your best night’s sleep — from your height and weight to your body type and preferred sleep position.

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Visit your local Mattress Warehouse or take our five-minute bedMATCH sleep diagnostic quiz to browse personalized mattress options right now.