Are Prescription Sleeping Pills Safe?

Are Prescription Sleeping Pills Safe?

Side effects, risks and abuse issues of sleep aides

A third of Americans suffer from some form of insomnia and many turn, at some point, to prescription sleeping pills to deliver a good night’s sleep. A sleeping pill can be an effective, short-term solution for insomnia but it’s important to know the side effects and risks – and what happens when sedatives are misused.

A Best Buy survey, conducted by Lisa Schwartz M.D., former FDA advisory council member, found that people who took a sleeping pill every night for 3 months fell asleep just 6 minutes faster on average than those who took a placebo. And those on the real sleeping pill slept on average only 16 minutes longer than people given a placebo.

Hardly seems worth it, does it?

The morning after the pill…

While limited relief is a concern, the morning-after-effect of sleeping pills is even more worrisome. In 2015, the American Journal of Public Health reported that people taking sleeping pills were as likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident as those driving with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.

To turn the tide of the bad press, many prescription sleep aide brands began to caution users to remain in bed for 7 to 8 hours after taking their appropriate dosage. And to reduce next-day drowsiness, the FDA now recommends half doses for Ambien and Lunesta. Ambien and Belsomra labels actually caution users against driving at all the day after taking the pill.

Are women more at risk with sleeping pills?

Research, released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, found that the number of emergency room visits involving overmedication of sleeping pills doubled between 2005 and 2010 and that women accounted for two thirds of those visits.

“Women tend to metabolize sleeping pills slower than men do, but many people—including some doctors—don’t know this,” Carl Bazil, M.D., director of sleep and epilepsy at Columbia University told Women’s Health Magazine. “And when they take too high a dose, the effect is extra strong.”

Sleeping pills and addiction risks

If you’re considering sleeping pills to help solve your insomnia, be aware of the immediate and long term dangers, which can range from minor fatigue to debilitating addiction to coma. Common symptoms of sleeping pill abuse include:

  • Dizziness
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Itching and swelling
  • Dry mouth
  • Memory loss
  • Light-headedness
  • Coordination struggles
  • Unusual dreams
  • Depressed breathing rate

If you’ve been taking sleeping pills for a longer period of time, you may experience rebound insomnia as you ease yourself off the medication. Rebound insomnia is often worse than the first bought of insomnia, carrying with it bizarre dreams and panic attacks on waking.

Discussing sleeping pills with your doctor

If you decide to try prescription sleep medication, a short stint can help solve the immediate problem of sleep deprivation, which will allow your doctor to investigate underlying medical issues. Go to your doctor with lots of questions – even ones you’ve printed out from the internet. Your doctor is there to help you cut through the clutter and curate information for you.

Remember, sleep medication isn’t a solution in and of itself – the goal is to find out what’s coming between you and a good night’s sleep.

“In my practice, sleep medication is a bridge to treating the underlying cause of the sleep issue,” says Dr. John La Puma M.D. “Try everything else before you consider medication and when you’ve exhausted your options, talk to a doctor.”

If you sleep with a partner, you have an untapped resource lying beside you, says Dr. La Puma. Sleep partners can make insightful diagnosticians when it comes to sleep issues, no special education required. S/he can help you figure out the source of the problem by discussing other medications you take, illness, sleep environment, snoring and too much stimulation in the bedroom (like TV or computer). “It might be a hard conversation but it will shed light on issues you may not be aware of.”

Wake up happy – without a prescription

Maybe you’d rather not reach for a pill to help solve your sleep challenges. These natural and simple-to-do sleep aides are worth a try.

  1. Yoga ­– Stretching your muscles while listening to soft music naturally calms your mind while releasing body tension. A relaxing way to prepare for sleep. There are several easy-to-do poses that can help you fall asleep more easily.
  2. Aromatherapy – The power of scent is amazing. Sooth your senses and let your mind wander away from stress using calming scents such as vanilla or lavender.
  3. Warm Bath ­– Slip into a tub filled with warm (not scalding) water and your favorite scent and your muscles will have no choice but to loosen and relax. Your very own sleep spa.
  4. Herbal tea – Chamomile and lemon balm teas have long been thought to help calm the mind and have been used for centuries to cure headaches and anxiety. 
  5. Cut the caffeine – We all love our morning cup of java but watch your caffeine intake after noon. Consuming significant amounts of caffeine later in the day may be the reason you’re having a hard time falling asleep.
  6. Break a sweat – Studies show that active people consistently sleep better than those who do not work out.