Sex, cuddles better for sleep - GP

By Teuila Fuatai

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Sleeping pills are over-prescribed, a local GP believes, saying "more sex and cuddles with your partner" are a better option for sleep.

Figures from the Government drug-buying agency Pharmac show 36,780 prescriptions were handed out in the Bay of Plenty District Health Board region in the 12 months to June 30.

Dr Tony Farrell of Mount Medical centre said most medical practitioners felt the drugs were over-prescribed.

"I think that there should always be caution with prescribing these medications as some of the long-term effects on memory can be a problem and I have found that getting people off sleeping pills can be extremely difficult.

"There is a general feeling that they are over-prescribed - acknowledged by both psychiatrists and general practitioners," Dr Farrell said.

Nationally nearly 680,000 sleeping pill prescriptions were doled out in the year to June 30. In Hawke's Bay 28,650 prescriptions were issued and 30,840 in Northland.

Before taking sleep medication, there were several things people could do to help with issues around sleep, Dr Farrell said.

Avoiding stimulants like coffee and alcohol before bed, regular exercise and healthy eating would all help, he said. "A hot bath, more sex and cuddles with your partner is also highly recommended."

Dr Farrell added that sleep medication could be used to treat anxiety.

Tranx - an alcohol and drug addiction service that deals specifically with sleeping-medication dependency - says New Zealand's high prescription numbers are concerning.

While Pharmac figures show prescription numbers are similar to those five years ago (680,950 in 2007/08), data recording methods and restrictions around prescribing medication have since changed - masking the actual increase.

Tranx manager Shaz Picard said long-term use of sleeping pills was risky.

"If somebody's using it on a daily basis there's more chance of them becoming addicted.

"We learn how to sleep, and if you're taking a drug that gives you a black-out, knock-out, zonk of a sleep then after six months or so your body doesn't know how to go to sleep because [the drugs] make it go to sleep." However, if sleeping medication was used appropriately, it could provide a huge amount of relief for those suffering insomnia or stress, Ms Picard said.

"Anybody knows if you don't get any sleep, you can become quite psychotic after a while because humans have to sleep."

People who were suffering from tremendous grief and were unable to sleep might also benefit from sleep medication, she said.

"But, what happens is people get on the gravy train and they're still taking them [long after the event]."

Stress, anxiety and being strung out could all cause insomnia, Ms Picard said. While sleeping pills provided a "quick fix", people had to deal with their underlying issues if they were to tackle sleeplessness, she said.

Pharmac medical director Dr Peter Moodie said a steady increase in prescription figures for all medications, including sleeping tables, was expected each year.

"There has been a growth and it's a growth that we watch and we haven't had alarm bells ringing."

Population growth, greater access to healthcare services and better data collection had all contributed to higher prescription numbers, Dr Moodie said.

Side effects of sleeping medication included dullness and the risk of dependency.

Those could be worse in elderly patients, he said.

"They don't excrete them [sleeping medication] so well and the dose can become cumulative and so can contribute to falls and things like that."

Children with epilepsy or those suffering from a terminal illness were sometimes prescribed sleeping medication to provide sedation, he added.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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