I’m pretty confident anyone reading this article will agree that there is nothing better than waking from a solid night of slumber. Unfortunately, that sound sleep is all too often dependent on a small, harmless looking, over-the-counter sleeping pill.
In fact, up to 10% of US adults are reported to use a hypnotic drug with some regularity. In a revealing study published in the February British Medical Journal, Scripps Clinic researchers reported that there are significant medical risks for even occasional use of sleeping pills. Over 34,000 patients were studied over a 4 1/2 year period. The mean age was 54 years. Eight of the most commonly used hypnotic drugs were studied and all were linked with an increased risk of mortality and cancer. There was a clear dose-response association between frequency of use and degree of health risk. Even less than 19 pills per year increased the risk of premature death by a factor of 3.6 times. The greatest risk was for those consuming over 132 doses per year. This resulted in an increased hazard risk of 5.3 times the risk of non-users. Equally alarming, the researchers found an up to 35% greater risk in cancers of various types for those who used hypnotics. The cancer-causing risk of hypnotics was found to be similar to that of smoking cigarettes.
Although this study is bound to be scrutinized and its limitations will be highlighted, it is noteworthy that this is the 19th study to reveal the dangers of sleeping medications. While absolute cause and effect was not established, the statistics are compelling and should not be overlooked. So where do we go from here? I think anyone with regular sleep issues requiring medication should re-think the wisdom of taking hypnotic drugs on a regular basis. We have known for many years that all medication should be minimized and it seems clear that sleep drugs are no exception. While it may seem like the simplest cure for bad nights is to “pop” a pill, it is not without risks. Learning the skills of what is now called “sleep hygiene” is statistically equal or superior to medication in inducing quality sleep patterns and there is absolutely no risk to these practices. Most of us assume that normal sleep should “just happen”. And when it doesn’t, there can be a tremendous temptation to depend on a pill to fix the “problem”. For many, disrupted sleep is a signal of unresolved conflicts or problems during the day. For others it’s due to inappropriate use of caffeine, alcohol or sugar. Still others suffer primarily due to lack of regular exercise. Additional medical issues such as obesity, gastric reflux, depression, generalized anxiety, sleep apnea and even musculoskeletal problems like shoulder bursitis can be the culprits. Once insomnia becomes frequent, our minds themselves can cause ongoing problems by EXPECTING to not sleep well. Expectation then breeds reality!
Rather than “band-aid” poor sleep habits with a pill, I encourage you to do an honest inventory of WHY you may have sleep difficulties and to ask for help when necessary to clearly define and address the core issue(s). I like the comment, “When all else fails, before retiring, turn your troubles over to God. He’ll be up all night anyway.” Your problems are very courteous. They will wait for you in the morning.
If after evaluating all of the potential causes of your sleep struggle and cannot find the culprit, seek a wellness professional to start making your way back to the sleep you deserve! you have reached a state that