To get a good night’s sleep, many people will do almost anything, with the default option for millions being sleeping pills. Trouble is, there’s mounting evidence of dangers that may be far worse than anyone could have imagined. While I’ve always advised my patients to avoid drugs to induce sleep, the message needs to get out to a wider audience, which is why I encourage everyone who cares about their health to spread the word, particularly to their less health-savvy friends and loved ones, about the potentially devastating effects sleeping pills can have on both short and long-term health. Here’s why quitting – very slowly, over time, and under your doctor’s supervision to minimize withdrawal symptoms – is so important. In short, it’s all about risk:
1. Increased Risk of Dementia
When it comes to brain function, the news about sleeping pill use gets scarier by the minute. Several recent British and French studies involving older adults concluded that those who took benzodiazepines, the class of drugs often prescribed to combat sleep disorders, put users at a roughly 50% higher dementia risk than non-users. Another 2012 study published in the British Medical Journal linked prescription sleeping pill use to an increased risk of death. And it’s not just the classic meds like Valium, Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan that are cause for concern. Cash-cow sleep aids like Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata also make the list as they behave much like the benzodiazepines, acting on the same receptors, switching on the brain-activity brakes and making sleep come more swiftly, usually within minutes.
2. Risk of Dependency, Addiction and Over-dose
People love their sleeping pills because they’re effortless, effective and fast-acting, usually delivering their knockout punch in under half an hour. Trouble is, the more reliant on sleeping pills the body becomes, the more dangerous they become. Take them for an extended period and tolerance increases —the need for more of the drug to get the same result. Next stop on the escalating-dose train? Accidental fatal overdose, when essential bodily functions, like breathing and heartbeat, slow, then stop altogether. In my opinion, taking sleeping pills is like playing with fire, so don’t start in the first place. If you already have an affinity for drugs like Ambien, Sonata, Lunesta or benzodiazepines, don’t try to quit cold turkey. Depending on how hooked you are, suddenly stopping the pills can be extremely dangerous – think panic attacks, depression, rebound insomnia, seizures, psychosis, etc. – so go slow and work with your doctor to establish a medically supervised plan to taper off.
3. Risk of “Unusual” Behaviors
In some cases, the behavioral side-effects of sleeping pills can be so bizarre, insomnia may seem a saner option. Strange behaviors like sleep-eating, online sleep-shopping and far more alarming ones like sleepwalking or even sleep-driving can put users in precarious situations, causing injury to themselves and others. Prescription sleeping pills tend to put most people in a state somewhat akin to a blackout, leaving them utterly unable to recall what’s happened while they were under the influence. For some this might make for an amusing anecdote (i.e. wandering off and waking up in a strange place or eating odd foods in the middle of the night), for others, these drugs could be life-threatening. Unfortunately, sleeping pills are believed to have played pivotal roles in a number of incidents of road-rage, car accidents, criminal behavior, sexual assault and even mass gun violence. While such extreme examples may not be the norm, they do point to the drug’s ability to trigger wildly erratic or aberrant behaviors in some users.
So What’s a Troubled Sleeper To Do?
The good news is, you don’t have to lose sleep or tough it out – it’s possible to fall asleep without a pharmaceutical blow to the head. Here are 5 sleep-savvy strategies to put you on the path to sleep success:
1. Rest Your Belly
To rest easier, eat light at night, at least 3 hours before bed to ensure your body will be resting instead of digesting, which can make it tougher to fall asleep.
2. Deprive Your Senses
To fall asleep faster, you’ll need a cool, quiet, dark room. Blackout curtains, sleep masks, earplugs, and a white noise machine (optional) will also help ease the transition to dreamland.
3. Prepare to Sleep
Turn off all screens, computers, iPads, Iphones, etc., at least one hour or more before bed. Engage in quiet, relaxing activities to help downshift mind and body to a sleep-friendlier state.
4. Try Taking a Little Melatonin Strategically
Melatonin in low doses for short periods – no more than a week or two at a time – can help regulate sleep rhythms. Generally, 1/2mg -2 mg about an hour and a half before bed should do the trick.
5. Power Down With Calming Nutrients
My favorites are Magnesium (300-600 mg); the amino acids L theanine (100-500mg), 5 HTP (50-100mg), taurine and GABA, or herbs like lemon balm, passion flower, chamomile, magnolia and valerian root. The Be Well Sleep Formula contains most of these nutrients, all in one formula.
For 12 more essential tips, check out Sleep Solutions: 14 Ways to Sleep Better, Tonight! and Sleep Tonight: The Step-by-Step Sleep Solution and you’ll be sleeping like a pro