Wednesday, November 07, 2007

How This Shrink Picks A Sleep Medication


I have more to say about sleep medications. But I have a lot less to say about choosing a sleep medication than I do about choosing an anti-depressant, and my thinking on this is a lot less structured.

Everyone who wants medication to help them sleep gets a talk about the obvious sleep hygiene issues. Here are the basics:
-- Choose a 7 hour period during which you'd like to sleep. Keep it the same everyday, for example, midnight to 7 am, but the exact hours aren't important. The regularity is. Set an alarm.
--Don't nap.
--Don't watch TV or do anything else interesting in bed (sleep and sex, that's it)
--No caffeine after 2 pm. And not much before that. That includes caffeinated soda and iced tea and sadly, chocolate.
--Exercise regularly, preferably 3 hours before you go to bed, but absolutely no closer to bedtime.
--Limit alcohol, and don't drink it near bedtime, it screws up your sleep architecture.
--If you have sleep apnea, use your CPAP machine. Really.

No one follows these recommendations, at least not when I make them.
Linda, the self-proclaimed sleep Nazi, would add: No Screens of any kind after 11 pm for adults and 10 pm for kids-- no computers, TV, video games. Even I'm glad I don't live at her house.

I prescribe sleep medications frequently, insomnia's a common complaint. Sometimes I feel strongly that someone should take a sleep medication-- disturbed sleep goes hand-in-hand with affective (mood) disorders and in patients subject to manic episodes, sleep is really important and I worry that poor sleep habits might either announce or precipitate an episode. Often, though, I feel like it's not the end of the world if every night's sleep is not perfect (great blogging gets done in those wee hours), and that some people are too quick to look to pills to fix problems. I'm probably going to get blasted for that one.

Sleep issues take on a life of their own. People get anxious about not sleeping and it builds on itself. They have all sorts of expectations about how much sleep they need or should have-- one patient was beside herself because she was only sleeping 6 hours a night and felt she needed 8 to 9 hours. Maybe she was right, but when I suggested that maybe she only needed 6 hours and that's why she was waking up, she felt I was dismissive and she found another doc. Another patient said he was greatly relieved when I told him his body was getting rest by just lying there quietly, he stopped worrying so much, and his sleep improved (plus, he turned on his CPAP machine).

All medications have the potential for side effects and adverse effects. Sleep medications are no exception. And many sleep medications are addictive and many patients insist they won't become addicted. And even folks who don't become addicted in an up-the-dose, abuse-the-med kind of way, they get habit-forming, whatever that means, and there are people who will end up taking a pill to sleep every night of their lives and won't hear of even trying to stop the medicine.

So my non-scientific, mostly random method of picking a sleep medication:

If the patient presents with depression, I hope that as the depression resolves, the sleep disturbance will resolve. Some anti-depressants are so sedating (TCAs, Remeron, Serzone, Trazodone) that they are effectively sleeping pills. Other times the anti-depressant, especially SSRIs, cause the sleep disturbance.

Trazodone. It works well in combination with SSRI's. It's cheap. It's not addictive. It's easy to stop. The down side: the fear of priapism and there have been case reports of patients who need surgical intervention. Ouch. The other downside: it doesn't always work, even in escalating doses. Or, it works but patients complain of feeling drugged for hours after waking up. When it's good, it's good.


If trazodone doesn't work or isn't tolerated, and there is no history of substance abuse (particularly of issues with alcohol/benzos), then I try Ambien. This usually works, and it doesn't have a hangover. At least it works for a while, some people get tolerant to it's effects. And some people never want to stop taking it. It's theoretically not very addictive, but it does hit those same benzodiazepine receptors.

If there's a history of substance abuse, I may try visteril. This works only rarely. Once someone has had extended exposure to alcohol or benzodiazepines, it's hard to knock them out.

If visteril doesn't work, I try Rozerem, even though I hate the Abe Lincoln/Beaver advertising campaign, and even though it costs a small fortune, and even though it did terribly on our survey. It does seem to work.

Sometimes I use seroquel or zyprexa. These work, though they have that same effect of leaving some people feeling groggy in the A.M. With all the concern about how these medications are linked with diabetes and lipid disorders, I use low-doses, as needed only for the short-term, and I don't prescribe it as quickly as I used to. Unlike many sleep medications, these are fairly easy to stop.

If there's no history of substance abuse, if the patient is a light social drinker with no history of abuse, then I may try ativan or valium for a short term issue. Restoril works well, though with it's long half-life, it's always a bit surprising that people don't feel groggy on this the next day.

I've never prescribed Sonata, and the first and only patient I gave Lunesta to complained of a horrible taste in her mouth.

With those thoughts, Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don't let the Bed Bugs bite.