Health & Wellness

How Do Prescription Sleeping Pills Work?

Finding the right fit for you starts with figuring out why you’re tossing and turning in the first place.

How Do Prescription Sleeping Pills Work?


Christina Frank,   

Apr 29, 2020 • 3 min read

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One minute you’re wide awake. The next your sleeping pill has worked its magic and your alarm is buzzing in your ear. It’s exactly what you wanted to happen, but wait, how exactly did it happen?

All sleep medications induce sleepiness by working on different areas of the brain. Some of these drugs are designed to specifically treat insomnia, while others have sedation as a side effect. Understanding the mechanisms of each will explain why you’re able to hit the snooze button on your brain, plus know what to talk to your doctor about regarding any risks and the best option for you. Here’s how some of the most popular types of sleep drugs work. 

Common Prescription Sleep Drugs

A lot of what goes into your doctor’s decision to write you a specific script will be what’s fueling your sleeping issues. These medications help you sleep while also treating the root of the problem:

  • Benzodiazepines: The main purpose of a benzodiazepine is to relieve anxiety. These drugs also cause sedation by enhancing the action of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that slows activity in the brain. Examples of benzodiazepines include alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), and clonazepam (Klonopin).

  • Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics: These drugs are in a class known as selective GABA medications, designed specifically to treat insomnia. Like benzodiazepines, they affect GABA, but these medications are more targeted, touching only a specific area of the GABA receptor—one that is responsible for promoting sleep. Examples of non-benzodiazepine sleep drugs are zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and zaleplon (Sonata).

  • Antidepressants: Drugs like trazodone (Desyrel) and amitriptyline (Elavil) are sometimes prescribed for insomnia. By altering chemicals such as serotonin and norepinephrine, they can have a sedating effect. 

It’s important to remember that not all sleep medications affect everyone the same way, says Shuhan He, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “There is some evidence that benzodiazepines cause various levels of addiction and efficacy in people and it’s been reported that prescriptions like zolpidem (Ambien) have wildly different effects depending on the person,” he says.

If you’ve tried over-the-counter sleep aids like melatonin, doxylamine (Unisom), or diphenhydramine (Sominex) without success, a prescription sleeping medication might be your best bet for a good night’s rest. Keep in mind, some insurance companies may have restrictions on which medications are covered—even if your doctor prescribes you a certain drug based on your sleep patterns and/or health history. In some cases, your insurance may prefer you try an alternate method of treating insomnia first, opting not to cover sleep aids at all. That’s why it’s important to check to see if your prescription is available through Blink Health, so you can get the medication you need at the lowest price possible.

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This article is not medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your physician or dial 911.

Blink Health is not insurance. The discount prescription drug provider is Blink Health Administration, LLC, 1407 Broadway, Suite 2100, New York, NY 10018, 1 (844) 265-6444. 

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