Everyone knows popping a pill to make you sleep is probably not a good idea for the long term, and for most people isn’t good even for an occasional bout of insomnia. Sleep-inducing medicine is powerful, dangerous and can be habit forming.
And, according to The Conversation, a website devoted to the popular discussion of science and current events, a growing body of evidence suggests that these drugs might increase the risk of premature death.
Medicines to help people suffering from insomnia are called hypnotics. They can be prescribed both for people who have difficulty falling to sleep and those who struggle to stay asleep. These drugs fall into several classes, the most commonly prescribed of which are benzodiazepines and their close relatives. They’re also prescribed for anxiety, seizures and muscle spasms. You might recognize some of the brand names as Valium and Xanax.
A newer class of hypnotics, zolpidem, is similar in effect to benzodiazepines, and have similar potential harms. You might know this drug Ambien, whose dangers we have discussed.
As The Conversation states, “Despite claims to the contrary, no hypnotic delivers sleep of the same quality as natural sleep. …The hypnotic drugs … are habit forming, dull cognitive abilities, increase the risk of hip fractures from falls and make other accidents more likely, especially when combined with alcohol.”
Chronic users also suffer from withdrawal if they try to stop taking the drugs suddenly. Sometimes, withdrawal can include seizures (and the risk of fractures), but more often, users get rebound insomnia that’s worse that the original problem that drove them to take the drugs in the first place. In addition, trying to kick the meds can cause anxiety that sometimes lasts for weeks.
More troubling is a recent study of more than 10,000 people taking hypnotics that found that their increased risk of death was at least three times as high as people not taking the drugs.
The researchers, according to The Conversation, estimated that there are as many as 500,000 deaths each year in the U.S. associated with hypnotic use. And it’s not the first study to link these drugs to premature death, and to cancer.
The reasons why premature death might be linked to use of hypnotics include the fact that combining these drugs and alcohol increases the risk of suppressing brain functions that control breathing. That can be lethal, especially for people who have chronic heart or lung disease.
People on hypnotics also are likelier to have car and other accidents, thanks to the hangover effect commonly experienced the day after they’re used. The drugs also increase rates of depression and therefore the risk of suicide.
But, as The Conversation points out, one criticism of hypnotics studies that indicate associations with death and cancer is that people taking them already are in poor health, which is partly why they have sleeping problems; maybe they’re not the best candidates for a study.
“Indeed,” says The Conversation, “it’s fair to accept the possibility of the results being confounded or distorted by some undetected medical condition in a high proportion of the group prescribed hypnotics. This is always a concern and a possibility of observational studies.”
Conducting long-term controlled studies that include individuals with disrupted sleep randomly assigned to either hypnotic medicines or a placebo (fake pill) would be the solidly scientific way to replicate the results.
But such a regimen is dangerous, and unethical – drugs for insomnia should not be taken for more than a few weeks. “So,” says The Conversation, “we’re unlikely to have much better proof that there’s a greater risk of death and cancer among people who take hypnotics.”
What’s an insomniac to do?
Seek alternatives to drugs. It’s the best first response to sleep issues. Nondrug therapy for insomnia is about lifestyle changes, ranging from:
- making your bedroom a welcoming environment for relaxation and sleep;
- getting sufficient exercise at the right time of day:
- practicing stress relief;
- modifying your diet; to
- restricting the use of certain technology to certain hours.
For more information about the causes and treatment of sleep disruption, visit the website of the National Sleep Foundation.