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Q. My doctor recently prescribed me Seroquel for sleep problems. When I looked up the medication online, it was listed as an “antipsychotic.” Why would I be given this kind of medication when I just need something to help me fall asleep?
A. Your confusion is understandable. Being prescribed a medication used to treat a severe psychiatric condition like schizophrenia when you’re just having sleep difficulties seems excessive, if not downright inappropriate.
However, many different types of medications are used for sleep. Although its use for sleep is becoming less common, Seroquel is one of them.
Another commonly prescribed sleeping pill is Ambien, which belongs to a class of medications referred to as non-benzodiazepine hypnotics. Ambien works by altering brain receptors that control arousal and relaxation — the same receptors responsible for the effects one feels after having a few alcoholic drinks. Other medications in this class include Lunesta and Sonata (zaleplon).
Similar to Ambien are the medications referred to as benzodiazepines. Restoril belongs to this class and is approved for the short-term treatment of insomnia. Others include Xanax, Valium and Klonopin. Although effective in the short term, these medications tend to lose their effectiveness over time. Also, some people develop physical and psychological dependence. They can find it very difficult to stop taking the medication and may experience serious complications if they try to quit “cold turkey.”
Antidepressants, in addition to improving mood, also may be good sleep aids. For example, Desyrel is commonly prescribed for insomnia, but almost never prescribed for depression. Likewise, doxepin has recently been approved for insomnia, but has been around for decades as an antidepressant. Other commonly used antidepressant medications include Remeron and Elavil. Antidepressants used as sleep aids generally are given in low doses.
It may seem strange that an allergy medication would be prescribed to help you sleep, but if you’ve ever taken the antihistamine Benadryl, you know why: A side effect of antihistamines, which is exploited for sleep, is drowsiness. Common examples include Atarax and Vistaril. There are also a number of over-the-counter medications that contain antihistamines, such as Unisom and Nytol.
When it comes to sleep medication, the name is less important than how the medication works. But if you ever have concerns about any prescription medications, it’s important to share your concerns with your doctor.
Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.