Less Medication, More Sleep: The Dangers of Sleeping Pills

sleeping pills and their effects

Did you know that long-term use of sleeping pills can increase the risk of cancer and infections, double your chances of getting in a car accident, and even significantly shorten your lifespan? Would you still be considering these over-the-counter treatments if you understood the risks they pose to your health?

People who have insomnia seek out a form of treatment that can help them quickly and effectively. Unfortunately, this means that many turn to sleeping pills to fix this problem.

Continued studies that mapped the effects of sleeping pills on the body have highlighted some startling facts about these sleep aids. Discussed below are just a few of the many dangers of sleeping pills.

Sleeping pills and their astonishing side effects

In the last decade, scientific research has uncovered the dangers of sleeping pills, or hypnotic prescriptions, on the body, illustrating that they actually hinder rather than help those who use them.

This study carried out by the Scripps Clinic Viterbi Family Sleep Center, and the Jackson Hole Center for Preventive Medicine in the USA followed 10,529 patients that took hypnotic prescriptions and 23,676 patients who did not. Over 2.5 years, the research found that patients that were prescribed more than 132 sleeping pills per year, were over five times more likely to die. High usage was also linked to an increased risk of cancer, even more so than smoking can cause in cases.

The high mortality rate might come as less of a shock when realizing that a drug used to treat insomnia in America is also the same drug used to implement the death sentence. Pentobarbital is a drug that, when used in small doses, is meant to aid sleep loss. However, in large doses, it causes death by respiratory arrest. In the USA, pentobarbital is the drug of choice when executing criminals on death row.

Insomnia is No Joke

Insomnia. Those who have ever suffered a terrible night’s sleep shudder at the word, knowing just how far-reaching the effects of fatigue can be in their lives. Poor sleep quality, or lack thereof, have become increasingly more commonplace throughout the global population.

Although many see sleep medication as a somewhat useful tool to obtain shut-eye, these pills come attached with dangerous side effects. They are highly addictive, cause massive withdrawal symptoms, and continue to be linked to cancer development and even higher mortality rates in users.

Increased Risk of Infection and Cancer

Use of hypnotics has also been linked to an increased risk of lethal infection, and development of cancer. An in-depth analysis of placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials highlighted this fact, illustrating that there was a 44% higher infection rate in participants using hypnotics, over those using a placebo.

The lead manufacturer of zolpidem has even publicly acknowledged that their drug induces infection, as shown by their collected clinical trial data. On top of this, the US Food and Drug Administration found dozens of post-marketing reports of zolpidem-related severe infections.

One Taiwanese study found that the use of zolpidem as a sleep aid in patients was associated with a 62%–91% increase in hospitalization for severe infections. The animal data on zolpidem is just as terrifying.

The FDA explored the effects of increased doses of the drug in rats, discovering a rising number of masses and tumours throughout the rats’ bodies. At the same time, zero tumours were found in the placebo group. Tumours found in the lungs were of the most concern, as there is already a human-specific association of hypnotics with lung and esophageal cancers.

The cancer findings of zolpidem were so irrefutable that at least five FDA scientists and medical officers wanted to deny the approval of eszopiclone, a newer sleep drug that is made up of approximately 50% of zopiclone. Despite these shocking findings, and the warnings made by professionals, the FDA went ahead and approved eszopiclone for consumption.

High Risk, Little Reward

Studies that followed patients taking ramelteon, a sleep drug affecting the brain chemicals which regulate the sleep-wake cycle, illustrated that those who used it only obtained 9 EXTRA minutes of sleep versus people who took a placebo.

This means that many people are putting their lives at risk for a measly few extra minutes of sleep. And the benefits are shown to be more subjective rather than objective as Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, points out. He explained that a team of leading medical doctors and researchers recently examined the length and breadth of all published studies surrounding sedative sleeping pills.

Sixty-five separate drug-placebo studies, spanning over 4,500 individuals, all pointed to one thing in common. Overall, participants felt like they achieved a longer and more restful sleep when taking sleep medication. However, the actual study records illustrated that this was not the case, as the data signalled that there was no discernible difference in how soundly they slept.

This could mean that the only real benefit of sleeping pills is the placebo effect they offer people.

Not the Remedy You Think They Are

Approximately every 6 out of 10 people who use sleeping pills to catch some shut-eye report that they awake in the morning feeling fatigued, disoriented, or forgetful the following day.

Excessive drowsiness is hard to shake. Many that have used sleeping pills the previous night won’t think twice about driving their car the following morning. They do this without leaving enough time for the chemical effects to wear off, essentially taking part in impaired driving.

A 2015 study completed by the American Journal of Public Health, found a link between car crashes and people who took sleeping pills. Cross-referencing 410,000 adults medical and driving records, they uncovered that people prescribed sleeping pills are almost twice as likely to be in a car crash, compared to those who did not take hypnotics.

To put this in stark clarity: drivers taking these drugs were just as likely to end up in a car crash as someone who was driving with blood alcohol levels over that of the legal limit.

Your Age and Sleep Patterns

Recent research illuminated that age plays a massive role in the way sleeping pills will affect an individual. The older you are when taking these pills, the worse the side effects can be, as ageing bodies metabolize drugs slower.

The slow metabolization of hypnotics can lead to minor and severe injuries. As a result, older people are more likely to suffer falls that cause broken bones and brain injuries. A 2017 analysis that monitored 4,669 people over the age of 65, for two years, found that those taking hypnotic drugs were 34% more likely to fall than those who were not taking pills.

What makes matters worse is the fact that insomnia becomes more common with age. There are several reasons why this is the case. The older you get, the harder it can be to achieve the same level of restful sleeping that was once easily obtained. Change in sleep pattern, activity level, and health are all underlying factors that cause chronic sleep loss.

Withdrawal and Rebound Insomnia

The health risks associated with using hypnotics can be just as daunting as the withdrawal effects of such drugs. Just like other opioids on the market, sleeping pills come with nasty withdrawal symptoms when stopped, the most common one being rebound insomnia.

Routine use of hypnotics forces the body to adjust accordingly. The brain becomes dependent on the foreign chemicals regularly introduced when ingesting these pills, so much so that it alters its own chemistry to account for the added substances.

When the consumption of sleeping pills has stopped, the foreign chemicals are no longer introduced into the system, causing the brain a massive shock. Insomnia can return two-fold when this happens, forcing people to go back onto the pills and causing a vicious cycle.

What's the Answer?

The health risks attached to sleeping pills are high, but so too is chronic sleep deprivation. Lack of quality sleep over a long period of time can double your risk of developing cancer, increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, and can even play a factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes.

So how can you treat insomnia and chronic sleep loss without turning to big pharma and dangerous sleeping pills for help?

Stay Active

Exercise is one of the best ways to keep the body healthy and help induce sleep at night. Physical activity will increase the time spent in deep sleep, as it is the most physically restorative sleep. Staying fit offers a whole range of benefits too, from boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, controlling stress, and supporting cardiac health.

Limit Caffeine Intake

Being aware of caffeine intake, how much is consumed, and at what time of day, can help keep sleepless nights at bay. The half-life of caffeine in the body is approximately 5 to 7 hours. This means, if you drink a cup of coffee at 1 pm, only 50% of it will exit the body by 8 pm, so your brain is only halfway cleared of its effects by the time you could be getting ready for bed. To ensure caffeine will not interfere with the natural sleep cycle, stop your intake before 3 pm every day.

Stick to a Schedule

Create a sleep schedule and stick to it. There are many reasons why bedtime routines change night to night or week to week, but creating a routine and keeping to it can help signal to your brain when it’s time for bed. Adjusting your schedule over time, and staying consistent is paramount to creating a healthy sleep schedule.

Sleep With a Weighted Blanket

Weighted blankets are the conduit to deep pressure stimulation, which in turn helps treat insomnia. All you need is the weight of the blanket settled around your body to stimulate this inward reaction, no chemical-alerting drugs required. These products offer a non-medicinal way to help boost the natural production of melatonin, and it creates an all-over sense of calm and security too.

Deep pressure stimulation has been used by occupational therapists for decades, recommending this tactile therapy as a form of treatment for those with sensory disorders. This stimulation helps the body produce serotonin and dopamine- the happy hormones- which are then transformed into melatonin at night- the hormone that enables you to sleep.

To find a weighted blanket that works for your needs take our weighted blanket quiz!

Try Binaural Beats at Bedtime

Listening to certain sounds at bedtime can help induce sleep. A technique known as binaural beats essentially tunes the brain into a relaxing state. Two different sound frequencies, one played in each ear, signal the brain to slow down activity, bringing on a sense of relaxation that can help people fall asleep easier, and stay that way.

Lessen Screen Time at Night

Instead of scrolling through your phone right before bed, ditch that blue light exposure and opt for a book, or magazine instead. Studies have shown that blue light exposure at night can significantly disrupt the body’s sleep-wake cycle, causing alertness and the suppression of melatonin. Put that phone down at least a half-hour before bed to achieve an earlier bedtime.

For more suggestions on how to catch those Zzz’s, head over to our sleeping tips list!