What You Don’t Know About Your Sleeping Pills

Most doctors prescribe sleeping pills or hypnotics as a solution to sleep problems. However, many people end up using these pills for months or years at a time without realizing that these medications were only designed for short-term use. Recently the FDA called for a reduction in the recommended dosage for zolpidem for women, most commonly found in Ambien, one of the most popular prescribed sleep aids. Are these pills right for you?

Posted on

Insomnia is one of the most common medical complaints: 69% of primary care patients complain of sleep issues, according to a survey. Most are unable to fall asleep for more than 30 minutes after going to bed on most nights; however, many also have trouble staying asleep throughout the night.

There are many causes for insomnia, which include depression, extreme stress, poor sleep hygiene, or certain types of medication. In addition to problems falling asleep at night, insomniacs tend to have issues with energy and attention during the day.

Even though sleeping pills can induce drowsiness, many don’t actually promote deep sleep or REM sleep. REM sleep, one of five stages of your sleep cycle, is what many experts call "restful sleep." You dream during REM sleep and a reduction in REM sleep leads to a less restorative or less satisfying sleep. That's why one may not feel completely rested after taking a sleeping pill, even after 8 hours of sleep.

There are many medications that physicians can prescribe to help with sleep. They include benzodiazepines, antidepressants, melatonin-like drugs or antihistamine drugs. One very common sleep medication, zolpidem, is in its own category. It works by mimicking GABA, a calming, inhibitory neurotransmitter that makes you feel more drowsy.

When Are Sleeping Pills Appropriate?

It is okay to take prescription sleeping pills for a short time when a tragic event, extreme stress, travel, or other factors or circumstances are affecting your normal sleep patterns or are keeping you awake. One popular sleeping pill uses zolpidem as its active ingredient. It’s most commonly found in Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar and Zolpimist, as well as generic versions of these drugs.

Many experts recommend not taking prescription sleep medications for more than 2 to 3 months at a time, as these medications should not be taken as a “cure” for long-term insomnia.

Are Sleeping Pills Dangerous?

In January 2013, the FDA reduced the recommended dosage for medications containing zolpidem for women because many women were waking up in the morning with active levels of the drug in the blood stream. This can cause morning drowsiness and impair activities that require alertness, like driving. Read more about the new recommended dosage for sleep medications containing zolpidem.

Many studies have also found connections between regularly taking sleep aids and an increased risk of death and cancer. Compared with non-users of sleeping pills, one study discovered that those who took 1 to 18 pills of any sleep aid or hypnotic medication per year had a greater than three-fold increased risk of early death. They also found that heavy hypnotic users were 35% more likely to develop a new cancer.

There are no clear explanations for this connection; however, some studies have connected increased risks of suicide and risky behavior, like impaired driving, with the use of prescribed sleep aids. Zolpidem can also increase stomach regurgitation, which can increase your risk of esophageal cancer.

So What Are My Alternatives?

If you have persistent sleep problems, you should talk with your doctor first. He or she would need to rule out any medical or psychiatric problems that may be causing your sleep issues.

Also, for natural alternatives to treat sleep issues, visit our sleep topic page for the latest information on improving your sleep.