Sleeping Pill Dangers

woman sleeping
May 11, 2015
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

I see it in my practice all the time—patients who are just plain tired. They come to me complaining that they lack energy and are constantly getting sick and gaining weight. During the course of our discussion, I usually learn they only get four or five hours of sleep a night. Well, it’s no wonder they’re so worn out and prone to illness!

Sleep has clearly become less of a priority, even though it’s one of the most health-enhancing activities we can do. Nearly a third of Americans are sleep deprived. And an estimated 40 million more suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders.

Sadly, I can’t blame them. As a society, we are overscheduled and overworked. Demanding careers and never-ending to-do lists don’t allow us many moments to relax—and often force us to sacrifice valuable sleep time to get things done. I’m guilty of this too. There have been plenty of evenings where I’ve burned the midnight oil, only to regret it the next day.

Dark circles and puffy eyes may be the most telling signs that you lost out on sleep the night before, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Research has linked lack of sleep with increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, chronic inflammation, insulin resistance and diabetes, strokes, and cancer.

This may seem extreme until you understand exactly what happens to your body while you snooze: Your heart rate and blood pressure decline, your muscles relax, your immune system rejuvenates, and your body repairs damaged tissue and builds new muscle and bone. Forgoing even a few hours’ sleep—especially on a consistent basis—doesn’t give your body the time it needs to fix issues so that it can function at its peak. Not surprisingly, illness and disease can result.

If you’re one of the millions who suffer from insomnia or just desperately want a good night’s rest, it can certainly be tempting to ask your doctor for a prescription sleep aid. But this “solution” is far from ideal. In fact, it’s downright dangerous.

The Dangers of Sleeping Pills

I am not a fan of pharmaceutical sleep aids. I rarely prescribe them because of their harmful side effects.

For one, long-term use causes dependence, so you need higher and higher doses to get the same sedative effect. They also can cause memory impairment and have even been linked to extremely bizarre and potentially life-threatening behaviors such as walking, binge eating, having sex, driving, and even committing crimes while asleep! Most of the time, patients have absolutely no memory of their actions once they wake up.

Most disturbing, research published in the prestigious British Medical Journal last year showed that they can double the risk of death!

The investigators in this study followed more than 100,000 people for seven and a half years and found that those taking anxiety meds and sleeping pills had a “significantly increased risk of mortality” in that time period. The risk remained even after adjusting for factors such as age, smoking, alcohol use, and sleep and anxiety disorders.

This study simply confirms what had long been suspected in the medical community. Sleep aids are known to cause a marked decrease in respiration, resulting in shallow breathing and a buildup of carbon dioxide.

Natural Sleep Solutions

Considering the problems associated with prescription sleep aids, I always recommend dealing with insomnia and other sleep problems naturally.

One of my top recommendations is supplemental melatonin. Generated by the pineal gland, melatonin is a hormone that regulates your sleep/wake cycle. Light controls how much melatonin your brain releases, with levels peaking in the middle of the night when it’s darkest out.

You can try to boost your body’s natural production of melatonin by eliminating all sources of light in your bedroom (such as your alarm clock and other electronics) and avoiding TV or your computer/tablet a few hours before bed.

However, the reality is that most people I talk to have a melatonin deficiency, which is why I recommend supplementation. Start by taking 1 mg just before bedtime and see how that helps. If you need more, increase your dosage up to 3 mg per day.

If you need additional support getting to sleep, other herbs that promote a sense of calm include valerian, lemon balm, and chamomile. All of these can be found in tea, or you can look for them in supplement form.

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