New Study Shows Sleeping Pills Linked to Increased Risk of Death and Cancer
March 17, 2012
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By Dr. Mercola
If you're struggling with sleep deprivation, you may be tempted to try anything to get some quality sleep.
But you may want to think twice before filling a prescription for sleeping pills, as they not only fail to address the underlying reasons why you can't sleep, but new research shows they're linked to a nearly four-fold increase in the risk of death, along with increased cancer risks.
Would You Risk Your Life for a Good Night's Sleep?
Most would not knowingly put their life on the line, but you may be doing just that if you take sleeping pills.
Research involving data from more than 10,500 people who received drugs for poor sleep (hypnotics) showed that "as predicted, patients prescribed any hypnotic had substantially elevated hazards of dying compared to those prescribed no hypnotics" and the association held true even when patients with poor health were taken into account -- and even if the patients took fewer than 18 pills in a year.
The study suggested that those who take such medications are not only at higher risk for certain cancers, but are nearly four times more likely to die than people who don't take them.
Sleeping pills linked to these risks included benzodiazepines (such as temazepam), non-benzodiazepines (such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata), barbiturates, and sedative antihistamines.
The researchers concluded:
"Receiving hypnotic prescriptions was associated with greater than threefold increased hazards of death even when prescribed <18 pills/year. This association held in separate analyses for several commonly used hypnotics and for newer shorter-acting drugs. Control of selective prescription of hypnotics for patients in poor health did not explain the observed excess mortality."
Sleeping Pills Increased Cancer Risk by 35%
In "The Dark Side of Sleeping Pills," an e-book by one of the study's researchers, Daniel Kripke, MD,i he expands on the study findings, pointing out that not only are you likely to die sooner if you take sleeping pills, you're more likely to get cancer too.
"We have now published a new study of over 10,000 patients who took sleeping pills and over 20,000 matched patients who did not take sleeping pills. The patients who took sleeping pills died 4.6 times as often during follow-ups averaging 2.5 years. Patients who took higher doses (averaging over 132 pills per year) died 5.3 times as often. Even those patients who took fewer than 18 pills per year had very significantly elevated mortality, 3.6 times that of patients who took no hypnotics.
It seems quite likely that the sleeping pills were causing early death for many of the patients. In addition, those who averaged over 132 sleeping pills per year were 35% more likely to develop a new cancer.
We went to great pains and effort to match the patients taking sleeping pills with those not taking sleeping pills for age, sex, smoking history, and various measures of poor health, so it seemed to be a fair comparison … Theoretically, there could be confounding factors or biases in the selection of patients which caused these deaths without involving sleeping pills. We can only say that we found almost no evidence of such biases. … If sleeping pills cause even a small portion of the excess deaths and cancers associated with their use, they are too dangerous to use."
What's more, Dr. Kripke reports that U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) documents on some of the newer sleeping pills on the market showed that all of the pills caused cancer in animals! But the results do not appear to be published.
"Several years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started making available on the internet some of their documents about the review of those newer sleeping pills approved for marketing in the United States since 1998.
… To my great surprise, I learned that rats and mice given high doses of zaleplon (Sonata), eszopiclone (Lunesta) as part of zopiclone, and ramelteon (Rozerem) developed cancer. The information available was a little vague to be certain, but it seems that these new sleeping pills all caused cancer in animals. I am no expert on experiments of this type, but FDA reviewers thought some of the results were worrisome.
One of the reasons I am not sure I understand these results is that I cannot find that the companies have ever published the details in the medical literature. It is conceivable that the manufacturers do not want these cancer experiments understood. These drugs also broke chromosomes, which is a well-known specific chemical mechanism by which drugs cause cancer.
There was also some older and confusing information about zolpidem (Ambien). Although one of the old records seemed to say that animals given zolpidem developed three kinds of cancer, and FDA reviewers were concerned about these hints of carcinogenicity, the new labeling says no evidence of carcinogenic potential was observed in either mice or rats. I would like to know how the company figures they do not owe people a warning."
Sleeping Pills Help You Fall Asleep Just 13 Minutes Faster and Sleep Only 11 Minutes Longer …
An analysis of studies financed by the National Institutes of Health found that sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata reduced the average time to go to sleep by just under 13 minutes compared with fake pills, while increasing total sleep time by just over 11 minutes -- but, the participants believed they had slept longer, by up to one hour, when taking the pills.
This may actually be a sign of a condition called anterograde amnesia, which causes trouble with forming memories. When people wake up after taking sleeping pills, they may, in fact, simply forget that they had been unable to sleep! As reported in the New York Times:ii
"If you forget how long you lay in bed tossing and turning, in some ways that's just as good as sleeping," said Dr. Gary S. Richardson, a sleep disorders specialist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit who is a consultant and speaker for pharmaceutical companies and has conducted industry-sponsored research."
Taking sleeping pills is well known to impair your function the following day. So unlike getting a restful night's sleep, which will leave you alert and refreshed, getting slightly more sleep (or what you think is more sleep) by taking a sleeping pill is not the same thing. Dr. Kripke reports that sleeping pills make your brain less active, and that depressed activity doesn't typically simply vanish when the sun comes up. He notes that:
" … almost all sleeping pills produce immediate impairments in memory and performance. Further there is extensive evidence that sleeping pills on average impair performance and memory on the following day."iii
This can lead to a sleeping pill "hangover" that may cause confusion, sleepiness and increases in falls and automobile accidents. For instance, certain sleeping pills -- those containing Benadryl -- can have a half life of about 18 hours. So, if you take them every night, you're basically sedated for a large portion of the day as well! Not surprisingly, they're associated with cognitive deficits in the morning. Many sleeping pills are also a potent anti-cholinergics, which suppress REM sleep and dreaming. These drugs are also known to increase dementia risk in seniors. Further, there are even stranger side effects to be aware of, too …
Sleeping Pills Cause a Battery of Strange and Serious Side Effects
Treating sleeping troubles with drugs is a risky bet, as they are notorious for being addictive, which means that once you want to stop taking them, you'll likely suffer withdrawal symptoms that could be worse than the initial insomnia. Some, including Ambien, may also become less effective when taken for longer than two weeks.
Ambien may also make you want to eat while you're asleep -- and the sleep eating can include bizarre foods such as buttered cigarettes, salt sandwiches, and raw bacon. Other bizarre side effects reported from various sleeping pills include:
- Sleep walking and even sleep driving
- Confusion and disorientation
- Complete amnesia from events, even those that took place during the day
Sleeping pills do nothing to help the underlying reasons why you're having trouble sleeping in the first place. This is likely why studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can treat insomnia better than drugs.
Most People Taking Sleeping Pills Have No Medical Reason for Doing So
Further, Dr. Kripke reports that one study revealed one-third of people who took sleeping pills never had insomnia; instead, the greatest predictor of whether a doctor would prescribe sleeping pills for a patient was how well he or she knew them!
"Giving sleeping pills is often a gift-giving behavior which is part of the "bedside manner." When a distinguished group of physicians from our national Institute of Medicine were asked which times they would give a patient a sleeping pill, they said it was when they knew the patient well. The decision had to do with the doctor-patient relationship, not with any particular complaint or medical diagnosis.
In the CPSI study, about 1/3 of people who said that they took sleeping pills "often" said that they never had insomnia. Before doctors were required to write in a diagnosis justifying every prescription, only a small percentage of patients given sleeping pill prescriptions received any diagnosis related to sleep disorders. Even if we include all diagnoses related to emotional problems and nervousness, most patients given sleeping pills are not given any diagnosis suggesting a genuine medical reason for the prescription."iv
Better Options for a Good Night's Sleep
Instead of resorting to drugs, I suggest reading my Guide to a Good Night's Sleep for 33 simple tips on improving your sleep. Whether you are not able to fall asleep, wake up too often, or don't feel well rested when you wake up in the morning, these guidelines will provide you with various useful techniques to improve sleep problems.
There are many factors that can influence your sleep, but one that many fail to consider is the use of lights, such as your TV, iPad, and computer, before going to bed. These emit the type of blue light that will suppress melatonin production and hamper your ability to fall asleep. Ideally, you'll want to turn them off at least an hour prior to bedtime. Next, making sure your bedroom is ideally suited for sleep can also go a long way to ensure restful and uninterrupted sleep:
- Cover your windows with blackout shades or drapes to ensure complete darkness. Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your internal clock and your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. (Even the faint glow from your clock radio could be interfering with your sleep.)
Also close your bedroom door, get rid of night-lights, and refrain from turning on any light during the night, even when getting up to go to the bathroom. If you have to use a light, install so-called "low blue" light bulbs in your bedroom and bathroom. These emit an amber or red light that will not suppress your natural melatonin production.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom at or below 70 degrees F (21 degrees Celsius). Many people keep their homes and particularly their upstairs bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is quite cool, between 60 to 68 degrees F (15.5 to 20 C). Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep.
When you sleep, your body's internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body's natural temperature drop.
- Check your bedroom for electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). These can disrupt your pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well.
To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to kill all power in your house. Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your head. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least 3 feet.
- If you're feeling anxious or restless, try using the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which can help you address any emotional issues that might keep you tossing and turning at night.