Dear Healthier Talk,
I’ve had trouble sleeping lately and it’s been recommended that I try a prescription sleep aid.
I’m not so sure I want to take a drug to sleep, and I think I remember reading about some strange side effects before.
Should I be worried? Are sleeping pills dangerous?
–Sleepless in Cincinnati
Most of us know the feeling. Lying in bed late at night, staring at the ceiling and feeling desperate to get a little sleep before it’s time to get up again.
Insomnia can turn even the strongest Tom, Diane or Harry into a physical and emotional mess. And if you’re like most folks a few nights of sleeplessness can make you start to feel a bit desperate to get some shut-eye. So desperate, in fact, that a heavy-duty prescription sleep aid might start to sound like it could be a good idea.
It’s usually not. And here’s why….
It turns out you very well might end up trading in a night or two of tossing and turning for some serious side effects ranging from bizarre behaviors to a serious—or even deadly—heart attack. And the worst part of all is that they don’t end up giving you that full restful night sleep you were looking for anyway.
Prescription sleep aid users face serious side effects
Sleeping pills are ridiculously popular. It’s estimated that over 56 million Americans—approximately one out of four people—takes one every year. But all those bleary-eyed folks could be making a huge mistake.
Research has found that prescription sleep aid users are more likely to develop cancer than non-users. Even more shocking, they’ve been found to be five times more likely to die young. And while these are not cause-and-effect studies, they should make any thinking person think twice about taking sleeping pills.
In one study, the sleep drug zolpidem was found to increase a healthy adult’s fall risk by 27 percent. Senior’s on the drug had a staggering 58 percent increase in fall risk according to that same study. And another study linked sleeping pills to a 50 percent jump in dementia in seniors.
But wait, it gets worse. These potent medications have also been linked to what the experts call “complex behaviors” while still literally asleep. That means folks taking sleep medications could end up sleep walking, sleep cooking, sleep driving and even having sleep sex all while still being asleep and unware of what they’re doing.
For example, one Idaho man was pulled over for suspected drunk driving after he took out several mailboxes and sideswiped a few cars. But it turns out he was sleep diving and didn’t have a drop of alcohol in him.
Which is why the prescribing information on a number of sleeping pills bears a version of the following sternly-worded warning: “Abnormal thinking, behavioral changes, complex behaviors: May include “sleep-driving” and hallucinations.”
Sleep drugs can leave you impaired the following day
A few years ago one popular sleep drug, Ambien, was linked to what the experts call “next day impairment.” But what that really means is that people were popping the sleeping pill at night and then leaving the house the next day unaware that they were still under its influence.
And if you’re thinking that means that there could be a whole lot of folks out there driving and operating heavy machinery while high, you’re absolutely right.
In fact, the situation was deemed so serious the FDA issued a rare warning as well as a requirement that manufacturers of sleep pills slice their recommended 10 mg dosages in half for women, who are more likely to still be impaired the morning after taking a pill.
But if you’re a guy the FDA warning extends to you as well. The FDA strongly advised doctors to lower dosages for men too.
Heart attack risk skyrockets in sleep aid users
And if you somehow manage to avoid all of those risks while taking a sleep drug, you’re still not out of the woods. A study out of Taiwan linked regular use of these drugs to an increased risk for heart attacks.
Taking the pills for around two months (60 days) out of the year raised heart attack risk as much as 50 percent. But perhaps even more frightening was the fact that moderate users who took just four doses a year had a 20 percent increase in risk.
The bottom line? Sleeping pills come with a lot of potential risks. For a severe insomniac it’s possible that the risks might still seem worth the reward of finally being able to catch up on all that sleep you’ve been missing out on.
Well, that is until you learn that one UK survey found that 42 percent of people taking these drugs haven’t found relief for their sleeplessness even after years of using them. Or that in one study it was determined that prescription sleeping pill users clocked in at just 20 extra minutes of sleep compared to placebo pill takers.
Need to sleep? Try these tips instead of a drug
The good news is filling that sleeping pill prescription isn’t your only option. There are a number of things you can do that can help you get a better night’s sleep without resorting to dangerous drugs.
Besides cutting down on caffeine-containing coffee, tea and chocolate you can try the following sleep-inducing tips.
1. Prep your room for better sleep:
Turn your bedroom into the perfect spot for sleeping. Toss out the TV and other blinking and distracting devices. Ban backlit electronics such as cell phones and iPads which wreak havoc with your natural circadian rhythms. And put up blackout shades to darken the room. Keep your bedroom a haven for sleeping and sex only… no work!
2. Try sleep-aid supplements instead:
There are a number of supplements that have been shown to be helpful for supporting a good night’s sleep.
One’s to consider are…
- honokiol (Magnolia bark extract)
Find a doc skilled in natural medicine to get some personalized advice on the best combo of natural sleep aids for you.
So why not give the natural approach a try instead? You may find yourself slipping off to sleep without dangerous sleeping pills.