May 2, 2022/Sleep

Are Sleeping Pills Bad for You?

Here’s what you need to know about these medications

sleeping medication

About 30% of adults have symptoms of insomnia, a condition where you have difficulty falling and staying asleep. Out of that group, about 10% of people have severe symptoms that affect their day-to-day lives. When that’s the case, a diagnosis of the sleep disorder known as insomnia might be appropriate.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

In the short term, insomnia can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, trouble with attention and concentration, and drowsy driving. Over time, it can cause health problems, such as an increased risk of high blood pressure and diabetes.

“Insomnia has many consequences,” says sleep medicine expert Michelle Drerup, PsyD, DBSM. “Sleep is crucial for well-being.”

For people who have a hard time snoozing, medications for insomnia — aka, sleeping pills — might seem like a dream come true. But anyone taking sleeping pills needs to be aware of some potentially serious risks.

What are sleeping pills?

Sleeping pills are prescription medicines you can take to help you fall asleep — and then stay asleep — and wake up at your chosen time. Ideally, you would take these pills only temporarily, since you can become dependent on them.

Common prescription sleeping pills include:

  • Non-Benzodiazepine Receptor Agonists:
    • Eszopiclone (Lunesta®).
    • Zaleplon (Sonata®).
    • Zolpidem (Ambien®, Ambien CR®, Edluar®, Intermezzo® and ZolpiMist ®).
  • Orexin Receptor Antagonists:
    • Suvorexant (Belsomra®).
    • Lemborexant (Dayvigo®).

Side effects of sleeping pills

Sleeping pills have a sedative effect. “It’s not like these pills work only when you’re sleeping,” notes Dr. Drerup. “You may feel drowsy and groggy, or have slowed thinking, after you wake up. This is when you want to be alert, obviously.”

For people who need to drive a car in the morning, being drowsy while behind the wheel can be dangerous. But feeling groggy isn’t the only potentially serious side effect.

“People have also reported abnormal behaviors after taking sleep aids,” Dr. Drerup says. “They’ve done things without awareness, like sleep-eating. There have even been incidents of sleep-driving.”

Always read the warning label

In recent years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced new warnings about certain prescription medications for insomnia. In fact, the FDA now requires certain prescription sleep aids to include a black box warning on their labels. It calls attention to serious — even life-threatening — risks.


These FDA warnings apply to the non-benzodiazepine receptor agonists class of prescription drugs mentioned above. These medications can cause rare but serious incidents the FDA calls “complex sleep behaviors.”

Those include sleepwalking, as well as engaging in other activities while not completely awake, including potentially dangerous ones like using the stove or driving a car.

The FDA required the new warning labels after it reviewed reports of serious events that happened when people used the medications, including deaths due to car crashes and drowning.

While these incidents are rare, they could happen whether you’re taking a medication for the first time or have been using it for months.

“Be aware of these warnings so you can watch for any side effects,” Dr. Drerup says.

When to stop taking sleeping pills

Anyone who has experienced complex sleep behaviors — even once — should stop taking sleeping pills. In fact, the FDA also added a “contraindication” for these medications, a formal warning that you shouldn’t take a sleeping pill if you’ve had a reaction.

How will you know if you’re up and about while you’re asleep? If you have a bed partner, they’ll likely notice you getting up and moving around. You might also see evidence of nighttime activity, like dishes and utensils from a mysterious midnight snack left on the counter.

Other treatments for insomnia

What happens if you want to stop taking sleeping pills? You don’t have to give up on the dream of a restful night.

In fact, guidelines from the American College of Family Physicians and The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend trying things besides sleeping pills first anyway.

“Behavioral strategies should be first-line treatment for insomnia versus medications,” advises Dr. Drerup. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which she says focuses on the behaviors and thoughts that are “disruptive and perpetuating your insomnia,” is a great first alternative.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is our gold standard treatment,” explains Dr. Drerup. “This first-line treatment for insomnia tends to have much better outcomes in the long term when we compare it to using a sleep aid or a sleep medication. It’s safe, effective and has no side effects. Once you learn good sleep habits, the effects are long-lasting.”

However, Dr. Dreup says there’s not one best sleep aid that works for everyone. It’s important to talk to your doctor to understand the risks of sleeping pills, and discuss the pros and cons of any treatment options you decide to choose.

“When taken by healthy adults, sleep aids usually can be safe for short-term use as long as they’re used as prescribed or directed,” says Dr. Drerup. “However, there’s a potential for side effects, so obviously, it’s always safest to do this under the guidance of your doctor.”


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Empty liquor bottles and glasses in front of a brown cloud.
March 12, 2023/Brain & Nervous System
Blackouts and Your Brain: How To Avoid Memory Loss

Excess alcohol and substance use can cause temporary and permanent memory loss

Elderly man taking his daily medications
January 19, 2020/Mental Health
Do Certain Medications Increase Dementia Risk?

A Q&A to help you understand the research — and how to protect you and your loved ones

Person in bed experiencing nightmares
May 22, 2024/Sleep
7 Reasons You’re Having Nightmares

Stress, alcohol, sleep apnea and (you guessed it!) scary movies are a few common causes of bad dreams

Person sitting in chair writing in tablet
May 21, 2024/Sleep
Should You Be Keeping a Dream Journal?

Recording your dreams may help you become more mindful, understand your thought patterns, process your emotions and even reduce your stress

Person sitting in bed in the evening, reading a book, with cup of tea on bedside table
May 15, 2024/Sleep
Restless? Try These Bedtime Teas for Better Sleep

Chamomile, lavender and valerian root teas may offer a faster route to dreamland

Person asleep in bed, talking in their sleep
May 3, 2024/Sleep
Why Do People Talk in Their Sleep?

Many factors can contribute to sleep talking, like stress or anxiety, lack of or low-quality sleep, or even more serious sleep-related conditions

Person in bed at night without covers, with fan blowing on them
April 17, 2024/Sleep
9 Reasons Why You’re Sweating in Your Sleep — And How To Get Relief

Getting to the root cause of night sweats — like menopause, medication side effects, stress or anxiety — can help you manage them

person sitting on bed stretching
January 22, 2024/Sleep
How To Become a Morning Person

Break up with your snooze button by shifting your bedtime and establishing a consistent nighttime routine

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey