Hypnotic drugs are those meant to cause sleepiness or promote calm, and they may also be called sedative hypnotic drugs. These medicines can vary to the degree they are effective and may also vary in the level of sedation or sleepiness they cause given dosage and individual patient response. Hypnotics come from many different types of drugs, and additionally, there are medications that have hypnotic or sedating effects, though their principal actions might address other conditions, like pain relief.
One of the big groups of hypnotics are medicines called benzodiazepines, such as diazepam, lorazepam, alprazolam, and clonazepam. These are usually used as anti-anxiety medications, but they also promote sleep when taken in directed amounts. Such medications have short half-lives, are notoriously addictive, and can be viewed as drugs of abuse. These downsides do not detract from the very positive benefits benzodiazepines may have, especially in the treatment of anxiety, and certain of them are also quite capable of stopping seizures in emergency settings.
Another group of drugs is called nonbenzodiazepines, and they are somewhat similar in structure to regular benzodiazepines. These medicines, like Ambien® and Lunesta®, do not seem to be as habit forming as drugs like alprazolam, and they’re used principally as hypnotics, to induce sleeping. They’re inappropriate for anxiety relief because they’re very effective in helping people to go to sleep and perhaps remain asleep.
An older class of hypnotics is barbiturates. These include medicines like phenobarbital. As with benzodiazepines, barbiturates can be addictive and they can be dangerous if overdose occurs. They also perform multiple functions, such as temporarily ending anxiety, causing sleep, or stopping seizures.
The last formal grouping of hypnotic drugs is those used in anesthesia. These may cause complete sleep without possibility of waking or remembering, or they promote conscious or waking sedation, where a person might remember a little bit. Sometimes dosage determines the level of “hypnosis” achieved.
Lots of other drugs can be considered hypnotic drugs. Many common antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl®) cause sleep or drowsiness. There are a variety of medicines used in pain relief, such as the opioids, that may make people feel sleepy or less anxious too. Certain street medicines are hypnotics; they may be rough copies of drugs available by prescription or they can actually be illegally sold prescription drugs.
There are so many hypnotic drugs that a general discussion of side effects would be difficult. A few hard and fast rules exist for how to treat these medicines. First take only what is individually prescribed and no more than told by a physician to take. Second, believe the labels about hypnotics promoting sleepiness, and avoid operating machinery, driving, or having to make important decisions while under the influence of one these drugs. Lastly, consider any drug or nutritional supplement that warns about sleepiness to be a “type” of hypnotic, and use it with care as to activity level and dosage.