Sleeping Pills Pros and Cons
Sleep is a vital process, a physical and mental state when human body restores and reenergizes itself. Sufficient sleep is as important as food and air. Being awake when you need to sleep and everyone else is sleeping is one of the worst things that can happen to you.
One of the ways to deal with insomnia is to take a specially formulated sleeping pill. And sometimes, there is no way to fall asleep other than to use it. Anyone who suffers from sleep problems can tell you that a pill that works feels like a miracle. However, besides the desired effect they may cause unwanted adverse reactions. And there are situations when these "magic pills" actually can do more harm than good.
Important Fact You Need to Know
Most people would agree that there’s nothing better than a good night’s sleep. However, sufficient does not equal the more the better. And insomnia is not synonymous with short sleep.
It is not true that you need eight hours a night of sleep. In fact, people who sleep between 6 and 7 hours live the longest and sleeping more than 8 hours is associated with progressively increasing risk of death1-2. Six hours of sleep is adequate for most people. According to the following study, even those with as little as 5 hours sleep lived longer than participants with 8 hours or more per night.
A six-year study of more than one million adults ages 30 to 102 has shown that people who get only 6 to 7 hours a night have a lower death rate. Individuals who sleep 8 hours or more, or less than 4 hours a night, were shown to have a significantly increased death rate compared to those whose who averaged 6 to 7 hours. The best survival rates were found among those who slept 7 hours per night. The study showed that a group sleeping 8 hours were 12 percent more likely to die within the six-year period than those sleeping 7 hours, other factors being equal.
What are the Pros of sleeping pills?
Quite helpful as a short-term aid
Sleeping pills are appropriate for transient or acute insomnia, when sleep is temporarily disturbed by a stressful event, a health problem, or jet lag. Sleeping pills can break the cycle of insomnia and minimize the fear of insomnia and anxiety.
You can try sleeping pills for a short time while you work on the problems that are causing your insomnia.
They work fast
Sleeping pills may quickly relieve the symptoms of insomnia. They generally produce almost immediate effects, and thus may be used for short-term, intermittently, or “as-needed”.
Easy way out
Sleeping pills offer an easy way to switch off the mind and sleep.
However, every person who sees sleeping pills as an easy way to combat insomnia should seriously think about the impact they may have on the health.
What are the Cons?
People taking sleeping pills have higher mortality rates
Did you know that people who take sleeping pills have higher mortality rates than people who do not take them?
Studies and tests carried out with several million participants, have determined that there is a 25% increased mortality rate among people who take a sleeping pill nightly, and a 10%-15% mortality if they are taken occasionally 1. However, the exact role that sleeping pills play in this high mortality rate is not clear.
The only way to be certain if the sleeping pills are directly causing the risk would be to randomly offer volunteers either sleeping pills or placebo pills for long-term trials. However, such studies would be quite hard to realize, and the ethical concerns would have to be overcome.
Dr. Daniel Kripke, a senior psychiatrist at the Scripps Clinic Sleep Center in San Diego, California has found evidence that taking sleeping pills regularly can increase the risk of skin cancer4.
He did the analysis and published the findings in the Journal of Sleep Research. The paper looked only at the newest sleeping aids, ramelteon (Rozerem), zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and zaleplon (Sonata). The study suggests that taking sleeping pills increases the risk of cancer, especially skin cancer. Even though there is no obvious reason how or why a sleeping pill could cause cancer, it is nonetheless possible.
Impaired daytime functioning, thinking and alertness
The advertising gives the impression that sleeping pills help you to work better, think better, or function better the next day. People may hope that they will improve their long-term health. But the effects are just the opposite of what people hope.
In reality, sleeping pills reduce brain cell activity during the day, affecting daytime thinking, alertness, short-term memory as well as causing a hangover-like effect.
This is because most of the hypnotics, when taken at bedtime, will remain in the blood with at least half strength when morning comes.
Parasomnias: bizarre sleep behaviors
Although these events are rare, they may be extremely dangerous.
Parasomnias are behaviors and actions over which you have no control. During a parasomnia, you are asleep and unaware of what is happening. Parasomnias are complex sleep behaviors and may include sleep eating, making phone calls, or having sex while in a sleep state. Sleep driving, which is driving while not fully awake, is another dangerous effect. Though rare, parasomnias are difficult to detect once the hypnotic takes effect.
Do Not treat the causes of insomnia
They don’t treat the causes of insomnia, which means that insomnia often returns upon discontinuation.
Sleeping pills do little or nothing to improve chronic insomnia.
Mask the problems
Sleeping pills can mask the real causes of poor sleep, such as depression, heart trouble, or asthma and delay treatment of these disorders.
Of particular concern is the presence of sleep apnea, a condition where the sleeper stops breathing for brief intervals during the night. Sleep apnea results in less restful sleep, and possibly insomnia. However, sleeping pills may only serve to hide the problem, rather than offering a rescue. Moreover, studies indicate that they may actually make sleep apnea worse 7.
Lose effectiveness when used on a regular basis
Over time your body will adapt and build up a tolerance to the pill. Users of tranquillizers and hypnotics soon develop tolerance to their calming effects. In contrast, there is usually no tolerance to the harmful effects.
Another drawback is ‘rebound’ insomnia – the inability to fall asleep, or stay asleep after discontinuation. When you begin to take sleeping pills you are no longer relying on your natural ability to sleep.
People can become physically or psychologically dependent upon sleeping pills. People feel that they are unable to cope on their own, and the physical symptoms of withdrawal support their belief.
Stopping the pill abruptly may cause really nasty withdrawal symptoms.
Sleeping pills can interact with alcohol and other central nervous system depressants. In combination, they act to slow things down even more, and the lethal consequence can be that a person simply stops breathing.
What is the key?
Don’t take sleeping pills if you can avoid them, even the newer ones. Try to change the areas of your life that contribute to problems with sleep.
- The Dark Side of Sleeping Pills by Daniel F. Kripke, M.D.
- 1. Kripke DF, Garfinkel L, Wingard DL, Klauber MR, Marler MR. Mortality associated with sleep duration and insomnia. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002 Feb;59(2):131-6.
- 2. Patel SR, Ayas NT, Malhotra MR, White DP, Schernhammer ES, Speizer FE, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB. A prospective study of sleep duration and mortality risk in women. Sleep. 2004 May 1;27(3):440-4.
- 3. Burazeri G, Gofin J, Kark JD. Over 8 hours of sleep–marker of increased mortality in Mediterranean population: follow-up population study. Coat Med J. 2003 Apr;44(2):193-8.
- 4. Kripke DF. Possibility that certain hypnotics might cause cancer in skin. J Sleep Res. 2008 Sep;17(3):245-50.
- 5. Gustavsen I, Bramness JG, Skurtveit S, Engeland A, Neutel I, Mørland J. Road traffic accident risk related to the hypnotics zopiclone, zolpidem, flunitrazepam and nitrazepam. Sleep Med. 2008 Dec;9(8):818-22. PubMed
- 6. Fonad E, Wahlin TB, Winblad B, Emami A, Sandmark H. Falls and fall risk among nursing home residents. J Clin Nurs. 2008 Jan;17(1):126-34. PubMed
- 7. Bradshaw DA, Ruff GA, Murphy DP. An oral hypnotic does not improve continuous positive airway pressure compliance in men with obstructive sleep apnea. Chest. 2006 Nov;130(5):1369-76. PubMed
Updated: May 23th, 2011