Editor's Note

Medicine Show

In 2014, the results of a study that was funded by National Aeronautics and Space Administration revealed that astronauts who flew to and carried out missions on the International Space Station slept less during the time leading up to and during the flight and while on the space station than they did during the first week after a mission’s completion. In an interview for “PBS NewsHour,” the study’s lead author addressed the concerns over the fact that, even though a majority of the astronauts over a 10-year period took “sleep-promoting drugs,” the need exists to develop effective countermeasures against sleep deprivation to promote sleep. Also of concern: The fact that performance impairment might occur the day after the ingestion of “sedative/hypnotics.”

Of course, we don’t travel at 17,500 kilometers per hour, as space station astronauts do, but the hectic state of our daily lives might make some of us feel as if we do. Work, family, money matters and so on prompt about 10 percent of adults in the United States to experience chronic insomnia and 15 percent to 20 percent of us to be affected by short-term insomnia. Of course, plenty of advertisements out there urge us to consider over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription sleeping aids. (Remember the bioluminescent moth that gently flutters into bedroom after bedroom seemingly to cast a sleeping spell on people who are lying in bed with their eyes open? That TV spot is courtesy of Lunesta-maker Sunovion Pharmaceuticals.)

What’s worse is that many doctors default to prescribing sleeping pills, despite evidence that the medication isn’t that much more effective than is a placebo in making you sleepy. However, in that same Lunesta ad, the voice-over says, “Lunesta helps you fall asleep quickly, so take it right before bed.” A warning caption that appears on screen at that moment reads, “For more information, ask your doctor.” It’s important, because your doctor should be in the know enough to help you to make an informed decision.

In “Wake-Up Call: The Real Dangers of Sleeping Pills,” we delve into all of this as well as into the “hangover” effect and other common side effects that sleeping pills have. Furthermore, experts whom we interviewed believe that Food and Drug Administration doesn’t do enough to protect consumers from prescription sleeping pills, despite the agency directing the makers of Ambien and Lunesta to halve the starting dose of their product.

“[FDA’s mandate] is definitely a step in the right direction,” says Dr. W. Chris Winter, who is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine doctor, “but we need to go a little further and explore why are so many people taking Ambien or Lunesta or Sonata or whatever the [sleeping] drug du jour is.”

Winter says that what gives insomnia or sleeplessness its power is fear: We’ve all been there—“Please don’t let me have another night like I had last night.”

Do you know what’s worse? Addiction, dependence, major health risks.

Whether you or a loved one are one of the 9 million Americans who use prescription sleeping pills or the millions more who use OTC sleeping pills, it will behoove you to read the article and open your eyes to the facts.

Rich Dzierwa, Editor