Last year, as many as one in 20 adults in America took a sleeping pill. If you regularly rely on prescription sleeping pills to get some rest, a new study suggests that it might significantly increase your risk of death or developing certain cancers. (Now that’s something to keep you up at night)
Drugs associated with these risks included: benzodiazepines such as temazepam; non-benzodiazepines such as Ambien (zolpidem), Lunesta (eszopiclone) and Sonata (zaleplon); barbiturates; and sedative antihistamines.
The researchers analyzed health data from over 10,500 people whose average age was 54. These patients had a range of underlying health conditions and were prescribed sleeping pills for an average of about 2.5 years between 2002 and 2007. The researchers compared these patients' risks for death and cancer against those of people who did not take sleeping pills. Among their findings:
- Those who were prescribed up to 18 doses a year were 3.6 times more likely to die than their counterparts who were prescribed none.
- Those prescribed between 18 and 132 doses were more than four times as likely to die.
- Those taking more than 132 doses a year had five times the risk of dying compared to those prescribed none.
- The results were true regardless of age, but risks were highest among those individuals aged 18 to 55.
- Specifically, there were 265 deaths among 4,336 people taking Ambien, compared with 295 deaths among the 23,671 people who had not taken sedatives or sleeping pills.
- Those taking the highest doses of sleeping pills were also at greater risk of developing several types of cancer, including esophagus, lymphoma, lung, colon and prostate cancers.
Cause for Concern
Commenting on the study, Dr. Bryan Bruno acting chairman of the department of psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City cautioned against the chronic use of sleeping pills. "They can be dangerous and are ideally used on a temporary or short-term basis," he said. "Chronic use should be avoided if possible, particularly because there are risks involved, including dependence. They are not benign or without risk, and should be used cautiously."
Non-Drug Alternatives for Sleep
Many sleep experts believe that prescription sleep aids should only be used if non-drug alternatives are ineffective.
For Good Sleep Naturally:
- Try to keep a regular bedtime/wake schedule.
- Avoid taking long naps (over an hour), or taking naps late in the afternoon.
- Get regular exercise.
- To keep your body clock on track, get exposure to sunlight during the day and make sure your bedroom is completely dark at night. Wear a sleep mask at night to block out light if necessary.
- Consume evening meals or snacks at least two hours before bedtime and avoid caffeine or stimulates after 4 p.m.
- Have a calming night-time ritual such as taking a warm bath.
If you still have difficulty falling asleep on occasion, you might want to try natural sleep aids such as melatonin or valerian. Melatonin is a hormone produced by your body’s pineal gland that helps regulate your natural sleep/wake cycle. The herb valerian promotes relaxation and calm so you can naturally drift off to sleep. Many people find that these natural sleep aids promote restful sleep without feeling “groggy” the next day as with some sleep medications. Get more tips for healthy sleep here.
Speaking of sleep, this Sunday is the beginning of Daylight Savings Time—don’t forget to “Spring Forward!”