Medical research has shown the importance of sleep for overall health, memory, energy, ability to cope with stress, and making healthier food choices throughout the day. While it has been suggested that adults get 7-8 hours of sleep and children get 8-9 hours of sleep per night, what is much less frequently investigated or even discussed is the quality of sleep. Short-term memories acquired daily are converted to long-term memory, via sleep-dependent memory consolidation, which occurs during the deepest phase of sleep – the REM (rapid eye movement sleep). In a 2014 study (J. Clin Sleep Med, link below), researchers determined that hypnotic sleep aids containing Zolpidem resulted in less REM sleep compared to placebo sleep or sleep with Zaleplon (administered in the middle of the night’s sleep). Therefore, people taking Zolpidem before bedtime might be disrupting the consolidation of memory for the knowledge acquired that day. In this study, researchers determined that both declarative memory (facts, ideas, thoughts, events, etc.) and procedural memory (common daily tasks – making a bed, brushing our teeth, tying our shoes, etc.) were negatively affected by taking a hypnotic sleep aid before the onset of sleep.
Additionally, Zolpidem also carries a known risk of potential morning sleepiness. Thus, prompting the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to lower the recommended dosages of this drug in 2013, particularly in women (as morning sleepiness and impairment was found to be higher in women than men).
In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that approximately 4% of the United States population relies on sleep aids in order to sleep. That means roughly 9 million Americans could possibly be hampering their memory consolidation through the use of sleep aids. This research shows that some of the knowledge acquired during the wakeful hours could be lost instead of converted into long-term memory storage through the use of hypnotic prescription sleep aids.
As with almost all medical research – answering one question prompts many other questions. Thus, many questions still need to be investigated regarding the use of prescription sleep aids and memory consolidation: Does the time taken (before sleep or in the middle of the night) make a difference? Does gender or age play a role? Does dosage affect memory? Do medication combinations (sleep aids and other prescription drugs) cause a difference? Does comorbidity (multiple health issues) play a role?
While sleeping pills might be a necessary part of the sleep solution for some people, particularly with chronic insomnia, it is not the only answer for improving sleep. Creating a conducive environment for relaxation and rest will also aid in good quality sleep: try to get your natural sunlight as early in the day as possible; avoid caffeinated beverages, alcohol and nicotine at night; finish your final meal of the day several hours before bedtime; finish exercising by early evening (a few hours prior to bedtime); try to do some mindful relaxation the last hour before bedtime; keep the bedroom free of electronic devices and a comfortably cool temperature (close to 68oF); reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex only – remove the television, cell phones, laptops, tablets, and all other electronic devices; and finally, try to maintain the same pattern/schedule of awakening and bed time for all days of the week, as much as possible.