6 Medications that Disrupt Your Sleep

Jan 4, 2024 | Written by Priyanka Puranik, MSc | Reviewed by Scott Sherr, MD and Marion Hall

6 Medications that Disrupt Your Sleep

Sleep is a fundamental aspect of human health, acting as a restorative process for the mind and body. However, the delicate balance of sleep can be disrupted by various factors, including the use of certain medications.

This article delves into six commonly prescribed medications known to affect sleep quality, examining their mechanisms and impact on different sleep stages. Additionally, we explore the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on sleep as a bonus section, offering a comprehensive view of how both pharmaceutical and recreational substances can influence our nightly rest.

From the depths of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep alterations to the nuanced shifts in sleep latency, this article unravels the sophisticated interplay between these agents and our nightly slumber. As we peel back the layers, we reveal not just the scientific underpinnings but also the practical implications of these interactions, which is essential knowledge for navigating the path to optimal health.

1. Beta Blockers: A Heartfelt Impact on Sleep

When it comes to managing heart conditions and anxiety, beta blockers like propranolol, atenolol, and metoprolol are often the go-to medications. But their reach extends beyond just calming racing hearts; they also have a significant impact on our sleep. These drugs work by blocking the adrenaline rush, leading to a slower heartbeat and reduced blood pressure. However, this calming effect on the heart has a flip side when it comes to sleep.

Beta blockers are known to disrupt our sleep architecture, particularly affecting REM sleep. This stage of sleep is essential for emotional regulation and memory consolidation, and any disturbance here can lead to restless nights, vivid dreams, or even nightmares [1].

Moreover, beta blockers can also suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. This suppression can lead to difficulties in both falling and staying asleep, especially in individuals with hypertension who already have lower levels of melatonin. Interestingly, the specific type of beta blocker used can have varying impacts on sleep quality. For instance, nebivolol, as opposed to metoprolol, has been associated with improved sleep quality, highlighting the need for careful consideration in choosing the right medication [2,3].

For those on beta blockers, the key lies in balancing their cardiovascular benefits against these potential sleep disturbances. Healthcare professionals may need to tailor treatment plans and consider alternative medications or supplements like melatonin to mitigate these side effects.

2. Corticosteroids: A Double-Edged Sword for Sleep

Corticosteroids, such as prednisone and dexamethasone, are potent medications primarily used for their anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects. Despite their effectiveness in treating various inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, they wield a significant yet often understated influence on sleep architecture.

These medications have been observed to disrupt normal sleep patterns, leading to challenges in both initiating and maintaining sleep. One of the most notable impacts of corticosteroids on sleep is their alteration of REM sleep. REM sleep is crucial for cognitive processes like memory consolidation, and its disruption can lead to fragmented sleep or insomnia, severely affecting overall sleep quality and daytime functioning [4].

Further complicating their impact on sleep is the effect of corticosteroids on the body's stress response system. These drugs can lead to increased levels of cortisol, a hormone that can interfere with the sleep-wake cycle, exacerbating difficulties in falling asleep and causing frequent nighttime awakenings.

This disruption is not limited to adults; it also extends into pediatric care. Children undergoing treatment for conditions such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia with corticosteroids like dexamethasone have shown poorer sleep quality and increased night awakenings compared to those treated with other medications [5,6].

Given these implications, healthcare providers need to weigh the therapeutic benefits of corticosteroids against their potential sleep-disruptive effects. Strategies like dose adjustment and promoting sleep hygiene practices can help mitigate these adverse effects, especially in patients already prone to sleep issues.

3. SSRIs: The Balancing Act with Sleep

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), commonly prescribed for depression and anxiety, have a complex relationship with sleep. Medications such as fluoxetine and paroxetine, while effectively addressing mood disorders, can profoundly influence sleep patterns.

A central aspect of SSRIs’ impact on sleep is their suppression of REM sleep, essential for memory consolidation and emotional processing. The primary mechanism through which SSRIs affect sleep involves their influence on serotonin function. By blocking serotonin reuptake or inhibiting its metabolism, SSRIs significantly reduce the amount of REM sleep and increase REM sleep onset latency, both in healthy individuals and patients with depression. This reduction in REM sleep is typically most pronounced early in the treatment and can gradually diminish during long-term treatment.

Reduction of REM sleep can lead to altered dream patterns and potentially contribute to “REM rebound” upon medication withdrawal. Such alterations in REM sleep can manifest as various sleep-related issues, including changes in dream patterns and sleep disturbances [7].

Furthermore, SSRIs can impact sleep latency and efficiency. They can increase sleep onset latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) and lead to more frequent awakenings, resulting in diminished sleep efficiency. This effect varies among individuals, emphasizing the need for a personalized approach in prescribing these medications.

While some SSRIs might disturb sleep initially, others can have sleep-promoting effects. However, these initial impacts tend to be short-lived, and significant differences between drugs often diminish after a few weeks of treatment. Despite these initial sleep disturbances, the overall sleep quality of depressed patients generally improves within 3-4 weeks of effective antidepressant treatment [8].

The use of SSRIs calls for careful consideration, particularly for individuals with pre-existing sleep disturbances. It's important to consider sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome and REM sleep behavior disorder when choosing an SSRI, as some antidepressants can exacerbate these conditions. Conversely, certain antidepressants may be beneficial in treating other sleep disorders like night terrors [9].

For healthcare providers, understanding the complex relationship between SSRIs and sleep is crucial. They must carefully balance the therapeutic benefits for mood disorders while minimizing adverse sleep-related effects. This careful orchestration of treatment can help ensure that the journey toward mental well-being does not compromise restful sleep.

4. ACE Inhibitors: A Complex Influence on Sleep

ACE inhibitors, crucial in the management of hypertension and heart failure, have a notable but complex relationship with sleep, especially concerning individuals with pre-existing conditions like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

A key way in which ACE inhibitors affect sleep is through their tendency to induce a dry cough. This cough, resulting from upper airway irritation, can exacerbate conditions such as OSA, contributing to sleep fragmentation and reduced sleep quality. Studies involving patients on enalapril, an ACE inhibitor, have highlighted an increase in obstructive apnea-hypopnea episodes during sleep, leading to overall sleep quality deterioration. When enalapril was discontinued, there was an observable improvement in sleep patterns and a reduction in apnea episodes [10].

Additionally, the impact of ACE inhibitors on sleep extends into the realm of cardiovascular health, particularly concerning the timing of their administration. Research emphasizes the importance of daily timing in cardiovascular therapies, including ACE inhibitors. For example, captopril, an ACE inhibitor, showed benefits in cardiovascular remodeling only when administered during sleep, suggesting that its therapeutic efficacy in treating cardiovascular conditions is intertwined with the timing of administration relative to the sleep-wake cycle [11,12].

Given these findings, clinicians prescribing ACE inhibitors need to consider their potential to exacerbate sleep disturbances and adjust treatment strategies accordingly. This careful consideration ensures effective management of hypertension and heart failure without adversely affecting sleep quality.

5. Antihistamines: Navigating Sleep and Allergies

Antihistamines, widely utilized for combating allergic reactions, exhibit a distinctive impact on sleep quality and mood. This category of medications includes both classic and new-generation antihistamines, each with its own set of effects on nocturnal rest and daytime alertness.

Classic antihistamines such as cetirizine, diphenhydramine, and hydroxyzine are recognized for their sedative effects, often leading to increased daytime sleepiness and negatively influencing mood. Research has shown that these medications can exacerbate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fatigue, presenting a challenge for individuals requiring alertness in their daily activities [13].

In contrast, new-generation antihistamines like desloratadine and levocetirizine demonstrate an ability to improve nocturnal sleep quality. They can reduce sleep latency and dream anxiety but also carry the potential to increase daytime sleepiness. This suggests that while beneficial for nighttime rest, the impact on daytime alertness should be carefully considered. For example, a study indicated that subjective sleep quality and overall sleep scores on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index improved in patients taking non-brain-penetrating second-generation antihistamines, suggesting an improvement in sleep quality without significant daytime sleepiness [14].

For healthcare providers, understanding these differential impacts is crucial in prescribing antihistamines. This knowledge aids in making informed decisions to manage allergic reactions effectively while ensuring that sleep quality and daytime functioning are not compromised.

6. Opioid Analgesics: Restless Slumber

In the realm of pain management, opioid analgesics are a crucial tool. Drugs like morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone offer profound pain relief, but their use often intertwines intricately with sleep quality, creating a delicate balance that healthcare professionals must navigate.

The Ripple Effect on Sleep

Opioids' primary impact lies in their potential to disrupt normal sleep patterns. Individuals using these medications report persistent sleep disturbances, a phenomenon that notably continues even after stopping opioid use. This long-lasting impact on sleep quality is particularly significant for individuals managing chronic pain, where sleep is both a refuge and a necessary part of the healing process [15].

REM Sleep and Opioid Use

Opioid usage can profoundly affect REM sleep, the phase crucial for cognitive processing and emotional regulation. The disturbance in REM sleep can lead to fragmented, non-restorative sleep, affecting overall health and recovery. This disruption in sleep architecture is a critical factor in the holistic management of pain and underscores the need for careful opioid prescription and monitoring.

Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) and Sleep Disturbances

Interestingly, the complexities of opioid-sleep interactions extend to OST. Patients undergoing OST often experience sleep problems, highlighting that sleep disturbances are not merely a side effect of active opioid use but also a challenge during treatment phases such as withdrawal and OST [16]. This aspect is crucial as it suggests a broader impact of opioids on sleep, beyond their direct pharmacological effects.

Managing the Pain-Sleep Cycle

Healthcare professionals are tasked with the challenge of balancing effective pain relief against potential sleep disturbances. This balance is particularly critical since poor sleep can exacerbate pain, creating a difficult cycle. Managing these sleep disturbances may involve strategies like dose adjustments, monitoring, and exploring alternative pain management therapies.

Thus, while opioids are a cornerstone in pain management, their nuanced relationship with sleep requires a thoughtful and informed approach. Understanding the impacts of opioids and OST on sleep is essential in providing comprehensive care, ensuring both effective pain relief and the preservation of sleep quality.

Bonus: THC and Sleep - A Complex Interplay

THC, the principal psychoactive component of cannabis, presents a multi-layered relationship with sleep. It's characterized by both potential therapeutic benefits and complexities, especially considering its long-term implications.

Dose-Dependent Effects on Sleep Stages

At the core of THC's interaction with sleep is its dose-dependent influence. Lower doses of THC can facilitate quicker transitions to sleep, potentially expediting sleep onset. However, the impact on sleep architecture, including vital stages like REM sleep and slow-wave sleep (SWS), is nuanced. Higher doses of THC tend to suppress REM sleep, which is integral to memory processing and emotional balance, while possibly amplifying SWS, known for its restorative properties [17,18].

Efficacy in Pain-Related Sleep Disturbances

THC has shown promise in augmenting sleep quality among individuals grappling with chronic pain. Medical cannabis, inclusive of THC, has been found to offer modest improvement in sleep quality for chronic pain sufferers. This therapeutic effect is likely linked to THC's analgesic properties, which alleviate pain-induced sleep disturbances. However, the effectiveness of THC in managing sleep is not uniform across all individuals and requires a tailored approach [19].

Recent Clinical Observations and Tolerance

Contemporary studies, including a 3-month prospective study using Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), have reported significant enhancements in sleep duration and quality following medical cannabis initiation in adults with chronic pain. Yet, it's crucial to recognize that long-term THC use may lead to tolerance. Frequent users might experience more sleep problems over time, indicating a potential development of tolerance to its sleep-inducing effects [18,19].

Considerations for Responsible Use

Navigating THC's benefits for sleep demands a balanced and responsible approach. While THC can offer short-term sleep advantages, its long-term use and the development of tolerance must be factored into treatment decisions. Dose-dependent effects and the possibility of microdosing provide avenues for its use in sleep management, but further high-quality research is essential to fully understand and optimize THC's role in sleep enhancement.


The intricate interplay of commonly prescribed medications and THC with sleep quality highlights the importance of personalized medication management and a comprehensive understanding of their effects. For healthcare providers, it's crucial to balance these drugs' therapeutic benefits against potential sleep-disruptive effects. As research continues to evolve, our understanding of these interactions deepens, guiding us toward a harmonious balance between medication use and sleep health.

THC, with its nuanced relationship with sleep, adds another layer to this pharmacological mosaic. It offers potential benefits, particularly in managing pain-related sleep disturbances, but also poses complexities, including dose-dependent effects and the risk of developing tolerance over time.

Before making any changes to medication regimens, including stopping or starting any medications, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare practitioner. Professional guidance ensures that decisions are made with a comprehensive understanding of both the benefits and risks involved.

Remember, the information provided here is for educational purposes and should not replace professional medical advice.

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