popular sleeping pills and who uses themSome people I know are perfectly comfortable taking sleeping pills and would be happy to use them for the rest of their lives. Others say they’re harmful, having a raft of side effects and degrading the quality of sleep we get.

The pros and cons of sleeping pills are too numerous to explore in a blog (I do lay them out in The Savvy Insomniac, my book). But here’s a summary of the numbers of people using sleep meds in the US, which meds we’re using, and who’s using them. These statistics are based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted from 1999 to 2010. Over 32,000 people in the general population participated in the survey.

Is Use of Prescription Sleeping Pills Really on the Rise?

Yes—or at least it was by the end of the survey. While about 2 percent of adults in the US used them in 1999-2000, the percent of adults using them in 2009-2010 was 3.5.

Many factors probably account for the change. More people are taking complaints of insomnia to their doctors (rather than assuming that nothing can be done), leading to a 7-fold increase in insomnia diagnoses. Many more people now are leaving the consulting room with a prescription in hand.

Which Prescription Medications Are We Using?

Trazodone, a sedating antidepressant never approved but often used for insomnia, was for many years physicians’ drug of choice for patients with sleep complaints. As of 2010 it was in second place, surpassed in popularity about a decade ago by zolpidem (a.k.a. Ambien), now leader of the pack. Of the 906 adults who reported having used a prescription sleep med in the past month,

  • 346 used zolpidem, eszopiclone (Lunesta), or zaleplon (Sonata)
  • 282 used trazodone
  • 154 used benzodiazepines such as temazepam (Restoril) or triazolam (Halcion)
  • 103 used quetiapine (Seroquel), an atypical antipsychotic prescribed off-label for insomnia, and
  • 45 used doxepin, a tricyclic antidepressant approved for insomnia as Silenor.

Of note is that fact that 58 percent of the adults who reported taking a pill to help with sleep did not endorse using a sleeping pill prescribed by the doctor. This suggests the use of over-the-counter sleeps aids like Zzzquil and Tylenol PM is huge.

Who Uses Prescription Sleep Medication?

We’re more likely to use the drugs listed above

  • as we grow older
  • if we’re female
  • if our income is equal to or above $75,000 a year
  • if we’re in poor health
  • if we’ve seen a mental health provider in the past year
  • if we’re also using another sedating medication prescribed for another condition
  • if we’re on Medicare or Medicaid, and
  • if we have arthritis.

What questions do you have about sleeping pills?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.


  1. Hi
    Does the use of sleeping pills for long time (for years) damage the brain?



    1. Hi Robin,

      I haven’t seen studies showing that long-term use of sleeping pills actually damages the brain. But it is true that sleeping pills can alter the nature of sleep, making your sleep lighter or allowing for less REM sleep than you would otherwise get.

      There are also studies showing that use of sleeping pills may slightly increase the risk of people developing sore throats, colds, fevers, and other types of infections. Other studies suggest that long-term use of sleeping pills may also make people more vulnerable to depression and dementia. See this blog, for example:


      Finally, some research suggests that using sleeping pills brings about an increase in mortality. I try to synthesize and put all this information in perspective in my book, The Savvy Insomniac. With all the talk of risk factors that we hear these days, it’s good to have some idea of just how big the risks are.



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