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Hypnotic (from Greek Hypnos, sleep) or soporific drugs, commonly known as sleeping pills, are a class of psychoactive drugs whose primary function is to induce sleep and to be used in the treatment of insomnia (sleeplessness), or surgical anesthesia.
This group is related to sedatives. Where as the term sedative describes drugs that serve to calm or relieve anxiety, the term hypnotic generally describes drugs whose main purpose is to initiate, sustain, or lengthen sleep. Because these two functions frequently overlap, and because drugs in this class generally produce dose-dependent effects (ranging from anxiolysis to loss of consciousness) they are often referred to collectively as sedative-hypnotic drugs.
Hypnotic drugs are regularly prescribed for insomnia and other sleep disorders, with over 95% of insomnia patients being prescribed hypnotics in some countries. Many hypnotic drugs are habit-forming and, due to a large number of factors known to disturb the human sleep pattern, a physician may instead recommend changes in the environment before and during sleep, better sleep hygiene, the avoidance of caffeine or other stimulating substances, or behavioral interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) before prescribing medication for sleep. When prescribed, hypnotic medication should be used for the shortest period of time necessary.
Among individuals with sleep disorders, 13.7% are taking or prescribed nonbenzodiazepines, while 10.8% are taking benzodiazepines, as of 2010. Early classes of drugs, such as barbiturates, have fallen out of use in most practices but are still prescribed for some patients. In children, prescribing hypnotics is not yet acceptable unless used to treat night terrors or somnambulism. Elderly people are more sensitive to potential side effects of daytime fatigue and cognitive impairments, and a meta-analysis found that the risks generally outweigh any marginal benefits of hypnotics in the elderly. A review of the literature regarding benzodiazepine hypnotics and Z-drugs concluded that these drugs can have adverse effects, such as dependence and accidents, and that optimal treatment uses the lowest effective dose for the shortest therapeutic time period, with gradual discontinuation in order to improve health without worsening of sleep.
Falling outside the above-mentioned categories, the neuro-hormone melatonin has a hypnotic function.
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