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The Dangers of Sleeping Pills


When they work effectively, sleeping pills can provide much needed rest to those who suffer from many forms of insomnia.  However, this relief can come with some serious risks, including significant side effects for the more powerful medications, and dependency.  A new study incorporating data from over forty thousand patients suggests there may be additional severe dangers to worry about when taking sleeping pills.


Side Effects and Dependency

Side effects of sleeping pills can vary depending on the dosage amount and how long the drug is designed to stay in the body.  Common side effects include headaches, trouble focusing on tasks, daytime tiredness (also known as a “hangover” feeling), dizziness, dry mouth, and constipation.  In some cases, rebound insomnia and withdrawal symptoms can occur.  Sleeping aids coming from the sedative-hypnotic class (benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines) can carry more severe side effects, such as facial swelling, significant allergic reaction, hallucinations, and memory lapses.  They can also lead to unwanted behaviors during sleep, such as sleep-walking, sleep-driving, or sleep-eating.

The development of a tolerance and eventually a dependency to sleeping pills is a significant concern, which is why they should typically be used only for short durations and under the supervision of a doctor, if possible. 

Physical addiction can occur because of the way sleeping aids adjust the brain’s chemistry to promote sleep—if used for a long period of time, the brain may come to depend on these adjustments in order to sleep.  Psychological addiction can also develop, particularly among those with a prior drug abuse history.  According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, this is also a concern for light-to-moderate alcohol drinkers and older individuals, who are more likely to continue taking sleeping pills past the recommended time period.


Obesity a Significant Concern in New Study

In a study published recently in the online journal BMJ Open, researchers found individuals using sleeping pills had a mortality rate that was doubled compared to those who did not.  Examining the data for indicators of this increased rate, obesity stood out as a significant factor.  This was an important finding due to the relationship between obesity and sleep apnea:  obesity is often associated with more severe forms of sleep apnea.  The breathing stoppages characteristic of sleep apnea are more frequent and may be considerably longer than normal—in some cases, up to a minute to two.  Because most sleeping pills “relax” the body’s respiratory systems, these effects can be particularly dangerous for people whose apneic events are already prolonged.  The data in the study reflected this:  obese participants (defined in the study as having a body-mass index of 38.8 or higher) were anywhere from eight times more likely to die (for those who took 18 sleeping pills or less in a year) to 9.3 times more likely (for those taking the largest number of pills per year—132 or more).


Other Factors Related to Increased Mortality Rates

There were some other factors and findings from the study that stood out to researchers.  Interestingly, sex was one of them:  men taking sleeping pills were nearly twice as likely to die as women taking sleeping pills—even after other factors (such as age, general health condition, etc.) were controlled for.


Despite their shorter duration times and generally being considered “safer”, newer sleeping pills were just as likely to be associated with an increased mortality rate as the older ones they were designed to replace.  Some of the more popular drugs—such as Ambien or Restoril—were also associated with increased rates of cancer.


Consider Alternative Treatments

Although sleeping aids are becoming a big part of pharmaceutical sales that generate two billion dollars in sales annually in the US, the researchers involved in the study hope their findings will give doctors pause before quickly filling out a prescription for a sleeping aid.  Cognitive behavioral therapy can be useful in restructuring a person’s thoughts and understanding of sleep.  While it can be challenging to do in today’s busy world, maintaining consistent and healthy sleep hygiene habits can often resolve the symptoms that drive people to seek sleeping pills.  In some cases, counseling for psychological issues such as depression can also be a useful alternative.


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