Wake-Up Call: The Real Dangers of Sleeping Pills

Addiction • Trips to the ER • The Hangover Effect • Minimal Benefit

Experts say sleeping pills work barely better than does a placebo. Furthermore, there’s a lack of clinical evidence in regard to the short-term and long-term dangers.

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Obviously, adequate sleep is essential to your health and well-being, but as many as 1 in 3 Americans don’t get the recommended 7–9 hours of sleep each night, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Contributing to that: 50 million–70 million Americans have a sleep disorder, CDC says. About 10 percent of adults in the United States have chronic insomnia, which interrupts or prevents sleep at least three times per week for 3 months or longer. American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) says 15 percent to 20 percent of U.S. adults have short-term insomnia, which lasts less than 3 months.

Depression, diabetes, heart disease and other serious health conditions are linked to receiving too little sleep, according to CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). A lack of sleep also can be deadly. Drowsy driving causes 328,000 crashes in the United States each year, including 6,400 fatal accidents, according to AAA.

To get more sleep, about 9 million Americans use prescription sleep medications, or sleeping pills, every year, CDC says. Millions more opt to take over-the-counter (OTC) sleeping pills, which make up 84 percent of sleeping-pill sales in the United States, according to Statista, which is a market-research company.

Sleeping-pill sales in the United States are expected to increase to $4.24 billion by 2021 from $3.38 billion in 2016, according to Research and Markets, which is another market-research company.

However, 15 experts tell Consumers Digest that more research is needed to improve the scientific understanding of the dangers of the short-term and long-term use of OTC and prescription sleeping pills. What’s more is that experts tell us that OTC and prescription sleeping pills work barely better than does a placebo.

COUNT SHEEP. Shannon Rhoades Kelly, who is a marketing director, tells us that she relied on sleeping pills in the weeks after her May 2006 heart transplant. Pain and worry kept her awake through the night and sometimes prevented her from getting sleep for days at a time.

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Desperate for rest, she took the prescription sleeping pill Ambien, which is one of the top-selling prescription sleeping pills in the United States. Rhoades Kelly was nervous about taking a sleeping pill in addition to the medication that she took for her transplant, so she occasionally took half of a prescribed 10-milligram dose, which she says helped her to sleep for 6 hours at a stretch. However, even after taking a reduced dose, she says she typically felt “fuzzyheaded” the next morning.

“Everything felt like it was in slow motion,” Rhoades Kelly says.

Rhoades Kelly’s slow-motion feeling is typical. Experts say OTC and prescription sleeping pills frequently produce a “hangover effect” that impairs balance and coordination well into the day after you take the medication.

What isn’t typical is that Rhoades Kelly took Ambien only a few times. Two-thirds of the people who take prescription sleeping pills that contain zolpidem, which is the active ingredient that’s found in Ambien and many other prescription sleeping pills, use and refill their prescriptions multiple times, according to a 2015 report from Institute for Safe Medical Practices (ISMP). AASM and Food and Drug Administration say OTC and prescription sleeping pills should be used only for short-term insomnia, such as during periods of grief or jet lag, and should be taken only for 7–10 days.

Besides the hangover effect, common side effects of taking OTC and prescription sleeping pills include confusion, constipation, dizziness, dry mouth, falls and urination problems. Prescription sleeping pills, which are more powerful than are OTC sleeping pills, because they work by manipulating neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), are linked to an increased risk of death from cancer, cardiac arrest, infection and pneumonia. A 2015 study in American Journal of Public Health concluded that the use of prescription sleeping pills nearly doubled the risk of an automobile crash. Prescription sleeping pills lead to more trips to the emergency room than does any other type of psychiatric medication, experts say.

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