Sleeping Pills and Holiday Habits: What You Need to Know
'Tis the season
You take sleeping pills—maybe all the time, maybe just occasionally—to get a good night’s rest, but you may be wondering how the hustle and bustle of the holiday season can affect your schedule and sleep habits. After all, you'll sleep best (with or without medication) by going to bed at the same time, in the same place, every night; that's something that might not be possible in this season of early-morning shopping, late-night parties, traveling, and overindulging. Here, eight factors that could play a role in your nighttime routine, and how to adapt.
Doctors across the board recommend that patients on sleeping pills refrain from drinking alcohol, but they realize that's not an easy task during the holidays. "If you must drink, try to limit yourself to a glass of wine or two beers in the afternoon, at least six hours before bedtime," says Donna Arand, PhD, clinical director of the Kettering Sleep Disorders Center in Kettering, Ohio. Alcohol acts as a stimulant for a time after it is ingested, and it can therefore counteract the effects of sleeping pills, which act as sedatives. "You want the alcohol to be as far away from the sleep period as possible," Arand explains.
Huge meals are an inevitable part of the holidays and they can make anyone feel uncomfortable, no matter what time a meal is served. But the impact of overeating is even greater within two hours of bedtime. "Your body starts delivering blood to the wrong places, to help you digest. Your blood sugar goes up and makes your body feel more energetic, which makes it harder to sleep," explains David Schulman, MD, codirector of the Emory Clinic Sleep Disorders Lab in Atlanta. Though Dr. Schulman doesn't recommend that patients eat a large meal so close to bedtime, he says it's fine to take your meds as normal if you can’t avoid the situation. Just know that you might have a more difficult time falling—and staying—asleep.
"The more stressed a person is, the more aroused and alert they are," Arand says. "The sleeping pill that works when you're calm is probably going to be less effective when you're wired." If you find your pill doesn't work as well during stressful periods, Arand suggests asking your doctor if changing the dose or type of pill is appropriate. A different hypnotic medication or even an antidepressant might calm your nerves and help you rest. You may also want to try relaxation methods such as guided imagery or meditation.
A cold or flu
'Tis the season for sniffles, colds, and flu—especially during the holidays when stress levels are high and immunity is low. Your first impulse may be to load up on cold medicine and sleep the night away, but be careful: Sleeping pills can interact with over-the-counter products (such as Benadryl) that contain the drug diphenhydramine, warns Dr. Schulman. "This drug has sedating properties," he says. “If you tend to get very sedated on your sleeping pill, you should not take Benadryl within four hours of bedtime. If you don't get too ‘knocked out’ from your sleeping pill, it might be OK, but you should always check with your physician before taking multiple medications at once.”
Traveling across time zones
Adjusting to a new bedtime after flying through more than two time zones can be difficult, especially if you're headed from west to east. Arand suggests adapting your sleep-med schedule to your new bedtime as long as the adjustment doesn't result in taking two pills in less than eight hours. Additionally, you can plan ahead: A few days before your trip, start taking melatonin an hour before what your bedtime will be at your destination. (If you are flying from Los Angeles to New York and typically go to bed at 10 p.m., for instance, take the melatonin at 6 p.m.) Dr. Schulman says this trick is best for people who will be away for four days or more. If you don't take sleep meds regularly but think you might need them for an overnight flight, ask your doctor for a prescription pill; they tend to leave you less groggy the next day than over-the-counter formulas will.(Click here for more jet lag and travel remedies.)
Staying up late or getting up early
Most prescription sleep medications take about eight hours to wear off. "If you're going to be up until 2 and you have to be to church at 8, you shouldn't wait until 2 to take a pill," Dr. Schulman says. Instead, he suggests taking your pill at your normal time and trying to stay awake—as long as you're not planning on driving or being in a situation that requires you to be fully alert. If the induced sleepiness is too much for your body to fight and you'd rather take a pill late at night—say, after you're done wrapping all your presents—ask your doctor about switching to a pill that has a shorter half-life.
Sleeping in a different bed
Staying in a relative's guest room or even a hotel might make it harder for you to fall—and stay—asleep. Arand suggests bringing your own accessories—a familiar pillow or blanket, earplugs, and sleep mask. You can also ask your doctor if he or she recommends changing your dose for the duration of your stay. Even people who don't regularly take sleeping pills might need some extra help in this situation; if you expect to have trouble sleeping while away from home, ask your doctor for a prescription medication you can use short-term.
Resolving to kick the pill habit
If you’ve felt dependent on sleeping pills for months or even years, you may at some point decide to stop taking them and start getting to sleep naturally. The New Year is as good a time as any to set this goal, as long as it’s not an overly stressful time in your life. Trying to fall asleep cold turkey while you're already attempting to quit smoking or lose weight can increaese anxiety levels—making it harder to accomplish any of these goals. (Other popular New Year’s resolutions, however, such as exercising and avoiding caffeine, can actually help promote sleep.) Before giving up your medication, talk to your doctor about tapering the dose, switching to a natural remedy, or trying cognitive-behavioral therapy.