A local counsellor warns sleeping pills should be a last resort for people suffering sleep deprivation.

Irene Begg of Talkin Headz Counselling in Rotorua said she advised sufferers to go to a health shop or pharmacy first to get natural or herbal remedies.

Figures from the Government drug-buying agency, Pharmac, show 16,460 prescriptions for sleeping pills were issued in the Lakes District Health board region in the year to June 30.

"There are always things people can do before taking medication for insomnia," Ms Begg said. These included making sure their bedroom was dark and avoiding stimulants such as coffee or alcohol before bedtime.


Nationally, nearly 680,000 sleeping pill prescriptions were doled out during the last financial year.

In Hawkes Bay, 28,650 prescriptions were issued and 30,840 in Northland. Ms Begg said stress was a significant contributor to problems with sleep.

"Some people may also be going through health issues."

Chronic pain sufferers, for example, sometimes needed medication to sleep.

Tranx - an alcohol and drug addiction service which 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 changed, masking the actual increase.

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

"If someone's using it on a daily basis there's more chance of 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 experiencing great grief and 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.

Sleeping pills provided a "quick fix" but people had to deal with their underlying issues if they were to tackle sleeplessness. Pharmac's 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. These could be worse in elderly patients, he said.

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

Children with epilepsy or a terminal illness were sometimes prescribed sleeping medication as sedation, he added.