New Study: Even Infrequent Use of Sleeping Pills Can Harm Your Health

By Kendle Walters

Many people can relate to the tossing and turning in bed that accompanies insomnia. The quick fix usually comes in the form of a sleeping pill. It may seem harmless to use a sleep aid once in a while, but a new study indicates otherwise.

Dr. Daniel Kripke, MD, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of San Diego, California, conducted a study, recently published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) Open, that includes over 10,000 patients who took sleeping pills and 20,000 participants who did not take anything to help them sleep. The results he found are significant.

Kripke’s website, thedarksideofsleepingpills.com, displays the findings, showing that patients who took sleeping pills over a two-and-a-half year period were 4.6 times more likely to die than the people who did not take the pills. Even patients who took fewer than two sleeping pills a month were still 3.6 times more likely to die than their non-pill-taking counterparts.

The drugs examined in the study include Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, Halcion, Dalmane, various barbiturates, and antihistamines such as Benadryl.

Many of these drugs are commonly prescribed and some, such as Benadryl, can be purchased over the counter at the local grocery store. Knowing the risks associated with their use may help prevent premature deaths.

According to Kripke, sleeping pills can increase the risk of cancer, depression, suicide, and accidental overdose. Kripke also cites incidences of “sleep driving’ that have been reported by people who have used the sleep medication, Ambien. Similar to sleep walking, the person literally drives their car while they are technically still asleep and has no recollection of doing this.

Former Hard Rock Hotel and Casino COO, Randy Kwasniewski committed suicide last year after taking Ambien. His family is now engaged in a lawsuit against the drugs manufacturer, Sanofi-aventis.

Dr. Mark Anderson, director of the Nevada Center for Behavior Therapy in Las Vegas, suggests those experiencing sleep disturbances may be suffering from anxiety, depression, or other psychological issues. According to Anderson, insomnia is very often linked to how a person is feeling mentally.

“In general, sleep disturbances are seen as a “barometer” for how people are functioning psychologically,” Anderson said. “People that are relatively balanced and feel good tend to sleep well.”

Anderson said sleep is also affected by shift work. “People working graveyard are much more likely to have sleep disorders than those working during the day,” he said. This is of particular concern for Las Vegas residents, because so many people work the night shift.

While we are an around-the-clock city, Las Vegas is definitely not the only place where insomnia sufferers are dwelling.

The American Sleep Association cites 60 million people suffer from frequent insomnia caused by factors such as stress, jet lag, or diet. Whatever the reason for insomnia, it can affect a persons ability to be at their mental best, and in turn, negatively affect employment and relationships. Sometimes just anticipating insomnia can exacerbate the problem when bedtime rolls around.

So, how can one fall asleep without resorting to a pill?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which utilizes an action-oriented approach to help change a persons thoughts and behaviors that may be producing unwanted symptoms, could offer hope to those suffering from insomnia.

“CBT can help hit the true problem and help minimize the effect of it, and in turn reduce the insomnia,” Anderson stated.

Changing your bedtime behavior does not have to be a massive ordeal. Even a few minor adjustments to your ordinary ritual can yield positive results in the battle against insomnia.

The National Sleep Foundation suggests setting a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday. They also recommend getting at least 30 minutes of exercise daily (preferably 5-6 hours before bedtime).

Avoiding alcohol, nicotine and caffeine will also help improve your chances of falling into a deep sleep. The NSF asserts alcohol deprives people of deep sleep, keeping them lingering in the lighter stages of sleep. Caffeine and nicotine are culprits too. Both drugs act as stimulants, making it more difficult to relax and fall asleep.

Relaxing before bed by taking a bath or reading a book can also make it easier to fall asleep. NSF states that a person can train themselves to associate certain restful activities with sleep and make them a part of their bedtime routine.

Some people will try everything and still need to occasionally use sleep medication. The findings of this study should be received with caution and those considering taking medicine for insomnia should consult their physician to discuss their concerns.

If possible, non-medicinal, alternative approaches to overcoming insomnia offer safe options for those looking to err on the side of caution. Anderson warns against the habitual use of sleep medications because of the negative side effects they have been known to cause.

“The research data seem to indicate that long term use of hypnotics and sedatives tends to lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Short term they are fine, but long term use can become dangerous.”