Risking Life to Get Sleep? Dangers of Sleeping Pills.

Risking Life to Get Sleep? Dangers of Sleeping Pills.

Since I was a young boy I have struggled with insomnia, so I know very well the degree to which someone can be desperate for sleep. At some point, we are willing to do almost anything to help get to sleep. Sleeping pills and medications can seem like the only viable option, but before you make that choice, here is something to think about.

First off, it should be stated that even if sleeping drugs help you sleep on a night by night basis, they are not solving the deeper sleep problem. It makes little sense to purely address the symptoms and not the illness. Any sleep aid that is not natural should be a very short term solution while you figure out the underlying cause.

But beyond that, and beyond the long list of side effects that come with sleeping pills, there is another major reason why you should not be resorting to sleep drugs. Research over the last few years has shown a link between sleeping medication use and some pretty scary consequences. I have now found 20 studies that directly tie sleep drugs to a risk of earlier mortality. One particular study published in BMJ Open literally shocked me (Kripke DF et al. Hypnotics’ association with mortality or cancer: a matched cohort study. BMJ Open. 2012;2.) I had to read the research twice to make sure was getting it right.

According to the researchers of this study ...

People were actually risking their lives to get to sleep.

In the study involving over 10,000 participants who were taking hypnotic drugs to help them sleep, researchers declared that "patients prescribed any hypnotic had substantially elevated hazards of dying compared to those prescribed no hypnotics." Adjusting for health, age, and usage, it was found that even as little as 2 pills a month increased the risk of death by up to four times!!

So not only are you 35% more likely to get cancer from using sleeping pills, you can die.

And we're talking the commonly prescribed sleep medications like benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and even sedative antihistamines.

Here's an actual excerpt from the published study:

"Receiving hypnotic prescriptions was associated with greater than threefold increased hazards of death even when prescribed <18 pills/year. The patients who took sleeping pills died 4.6 times as often [as those who did not] during follow-ups averaging 2.5 years. Patients who took higher doses (averaging over 132 pills per year) died 5.3 times as often."

As far as I am concerned I am going to try everything natural technique, meditation, relaxation responsenutritional sleep aid supplement and lifestyle choice, before I go near something that can give me cancer and might even kill me.

Taking sleeping pills and sleep drugs is just too risky.

According to the study, if you take more than 3 sleeping pills a week, you have a 35% greater chance of developing cancer and are 5 times as likely to kick the bucket faster. One of the publishing doctors stated that if these risks are even small by comparison to their findings, they are still much too high to chance using drugs for sleeping. Moreover, there was evidence in reports from the FDA (now available online) that several recent drugs cause consistent cancer in animals, but you don't hear that when you are getting your prescription. It appears that many of these drugs cause chromosomal damage, which is likely the root of their carcinogenic propensities.

Now, as I said, I have not touched all the side effects, but we don't even need to get there. Here's the bottom line. Not only are drugs dangerous, but their worth is questionable. The National Institute of Health funded research that found sleeping pills like Lunesta or Ambien reduced the average time to go to sleep by under 13 minutes compared with placebo, while increasing total sleep time by 11 minutes. The benefits are not nearly as significant as many people think. 

Interestingly, people who took sleeping pills did actually report feeling like they had slept longer, even though they had not. Some doctors believe this might be another side effect of sleeping pills. What they call anterograde amnesia, a type of difficulty forming memories. may be causing them to forget that they had been unable to sleep rather than actually getting real rejuvenating sleep. I found that disturbing. Plus, there is some conjecture that the drugs may interfere with REM stage sleep, which has its own issues.

So not only do they make you groggy the next day, affecting your ability to remember well, and can cause a form of depression, but they may not even be really helping?

I used to take Benadryl to help me sleep and though it worked, it left me completely useless the next day. It turns out that the actual period of effect is around 20 hours, so you are basically asleep for an entire day. How does that help anyone?

My personal assessment of the tests' results is that you cannot ascribe too much cause to just one factor without running into trouble, but at the same time, there is enough of a link to convince me that the judgements made by the lead researcher were correct: it is just too risky. One other thing he stated that piqued my interest was that of the 10,000 plus subjects in the test taking drugs, about a third had no reason to be using them in the first place. He called the prescription habits of some doctors akin to a "gift-giving behavior." So this is a complex issue, but the cavalier attitude toward heavy narcotics only makes the waters all the more murky. What this all tells me for sure is that we have to take responsibility for our choices, and only with some knowledge can we do that.

So next time you are thinking that you are desperate enough for some sleep to resort to the hard stuff, just remember that you are taking your health and your life in your hands and it may not even be giving you the deep sleep you need to be at your best. I would try everything else first. Ask your doctor to check things like adrenal issues, blood sugar levels, cortisol levels, vitamin B, calcium or magnesium deficiencies, lifestyle issues, or stress. Really look into the root cause, and then in the meantime, try a natural sleep supplement if you need help. And don't forget exercise! It's hands down the best sleep aid there is.

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Woods, JH et al. Benzodiazepines: Use, abuse, and consequences. Pharmacological Reviews.

Kripke, DF.  Possibility that certain hypnotics might cause cancer in skin. J. Sleep Res. (2008) 17.

The opinions expressed in this article are of the author. Content and other information presented on the site are not meant to be medical advice or any substitute for professional advice, counseling, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard professional medical or mental health advice from your physician or other qualified health provider.

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