Are Sleep Medications Helpful or Harmful?

A doctor weighs in on whether behavioral changes or sleep medications are best for achieving sound sleep.
3:59 | 12/02/15

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Transcript for Are Sleep Medications Helpful or Harmful?
A career behind the camera. The latest issue of "Porter" available globally on Friday. Over the counter and prescription medications. One in eight Americans use them. Are they always the best alternative? Becky Worley takes a look. Reporter: Insomnia, tossing, turning, desperate to get a little shut-eye. I'm not getting restful sleep and haven't for many years and on the average it's 4 to 4 1/2 hours a night. Reporter: Brenda suffered with it for 25 years and tried prescription medication but rarely takes it for fear of becoming addicted. I've tried almost everything I'm aware of to try. I have changed my bedding, I have blackout shades, I've changed my eating habits. Reporter: But lots of Americans do take prescription medication. In 2013, 9 million Americans had prescriptions for sedatives. Recently though some studies suggest sleeping pills may increase the risk of psychiatric issues and even cancer for some people. Though a definitive cause and effect link has not been established. I think sleep AIDS should be used for an acute need but they're not the best use for long-term care of your insomnia. Reporter: So this past fall Brenda underwent a sleep test at the university of Chicago medical center. The results she had 32 brief awakenings every hour so now she's trying something alternative. A behavioral modification program. I really need to limit my computer work because of the blue light they were sharing with me eating earlier, no alcohol. Reporter: It's also recommended for sleep restriction. Only get in bed when you're sleepy. No TV, no devices. If after 30 minutes you can't sleep, get up and go somewhere else. Cognitive behavioral therapy allows the patient to approach the bed and restructure their thought process so that the bed is for sleeping and it's not a stressful experience. Reporter: Employing new behavioral changes Brenda is now tracking her sleep. The first night netted six hours and a month into the program she's averaging five hours, an improvement she says. Anything could help me I'm willing to do because I'm goal driven to get this taken care of. Reporter: For "Good morning America," Becky Worley, ABC news, Oakland, California. Let's talk to Dr. Jen Ashton about this. We heard a little about the consequences of prescription medications. Right. What more do we know. Not a lot. That's the problem. Hardly anything in the medical literature past 12 months of use. How the big classes of sleep AIDS work. Basically the valium or xanax class, the ambien class of medication both work similarly in the brain, sedating. The problem is associated risks of long-term use, what is in the literature, not great. You can see issues with brain, memory function, heart, in terms of high bleep. G.I. System, nausea, vomiting, ab dom Nall pain, weight gain, menstrual irregularities, you have to balance those risks against the risks of being sleep deprived. It's not the kind of thing you want to be doing every night. I agree. What about over the counter. Two main classes, you have the sedating antihistamines like benadryl, and then the sleep hormone melatonin. The thing with these antihistamines, they will increase the time you spend asleep but they make that sleep less good quality and the next day you will be more sleep deprived. Melatonin good for something like jet lag but it's a hormone not regulated by the fda. Not regulated at all. Only if they find a problem after it's on the shelf. What other tips do you have. The onus of responsibility has to be on the medical community of we cannot write a prescription for a sleep aid and send someone on their way for life and take it forever. If you need to cut or taper down some cannot be stopped abruptly. You can cut it in half, alternate one day on, one day off, I recommend trying it on a weekend because you don't want to be sleep deprived when you go to work. Makes a lot of sense, Jen Ashton, thanks very much.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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