The Dangers of Prescribed Sleep Aids

In this day and age, life can be fast-paced and hectic, so it is not surprising that roughly one third to one half of people in the United States suffer from insomnia. A prevalent "quick-fix" attitude has brought a flood of sleep aids to the marketplace some of which may actually endanger our health.

The majority of sleeping pills are classified as sedative hypnotics - pharmaceuticals that are used to bring about and sustain sleep. Barbiturates are powerful drugs that cause sedation by depressing the central nervous system. Because they possess strong potential for physical and psychological addiction, barbiturates are no longer used for sleep and have generally been replaced by benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium and Ativan for treatment of anxiety. Although benzodiazepines can be helpful for sleep in the short-term, they also can become addictive.

The latest prescription sleep aids are those that shorten the time it takes to fall asleep, like Ambien, Lunesta and Rozerem. While these are said to be non-habit forming, there is still a possibility for psychological dependence where the idea of not having them produces anxiety. There are also several other dangers to be mindful of when it comes to this type of sleep aid:

Any or all of these side effects may be experienced:

  • Change in appetite
  • Gas, heartburn, constipation or diarrhea
  • Stomach sensitivity or pain
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache, dizziness or problems with balance
  • Tingling or burning in the arms, legs, hands or feet
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Unusual dreams
  • Uncontrolled shaking
  • Parasomnias

Parasomnias are sleep-induced behaviors we are unaware of, like sleepwalking. Though rare, some people taking these sleep aids have experienced parasomnias that have involved eating, making phone calls, having sex and even driving while asleep!

Some people may develop allergic reactions which can include itching or rash, blurred vision, pounding heartbeat, chest pain, swallowing or breathing problems, hives, nausea, vomiting and/or swelling of the eyes, face, tongue or throat. These reactions can be serious and even deadly in some cases.

Here are potential problems associated with all sleep aids:

Grapefruit or grapefruit juice does not mix with some sleeping pills. It can raise the concentration of the drug in the bloodstream and the time that it stays in the system causing dangerous "over-sedation."

Because alcohol enhances sedation from sleeping pills, the combination can be toxic. A warning to this effect is printed on all labels of sleep aid products.

All sleep aids produce breathing that is slower and less deep than normal. This can be harmful for people with lung issues like COPD or asthma.

Because of the dangers listed above, the FDA now requires all manufacturers of sedative-hypnotic pharmaceuticals to install better labeling regarding potential risks.

In place of potentially-dangerous sleep aids, take a look at these natural ways to induce and maintain sleep:

Investigate the "Body Clock" Method. According to the book, The Body Clock Way to Better Health, people can examine their unique body rhythms and discover personal "sleep gates," - periods that naturally occur every 1 1/2 to 2 hours each night that offer the best chance for falling asleep and staying asleep. This valuable book also explains how diet and exercise can be altered to boost energy during the day and promote restful sleep at night.

Try Melatonin. Some people who experience sleep problems have low levels of melatonin, and it is thought that supplementation may help. Although this hormone is naturally made by the body, for medicinal purposes, it is synthetically manufactured.

Commonly available in pill form, melatonin is used to induce sleep. It also helps to fine tune the body's internal clock, helping to better establish natural cycles for wakefulness and sleeping. According to the National Institutes of Health, "melatonin is likely safe for most adults when taken by mouth short-term."

Giving us more energy and a better sense of wellbeing, a good night's sleep can have a marked effect on the way we navigate the world. If natural methods don't alleviate insomnia, a consultation with a health care provider is recommended.


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