By Dr. Mercola
The first-ever federal health study about sleeping pill usage suggests that sleep is growing ever more elusive for Americans.1 According to the latest information, between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation, with increasing numbers relying on prescription sleep aids.2
The CDC report, based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2005 to 2010), found that nearly nine million Americans take prescription sleeping pills in pursuit of good night's rest.
Usage differences were found based on age, gender, race and ethnicity. The report listed the following key findings:
- About four percent of US adults age 20 and above use prescription sleep aids
- The percentage of adults using prescription sleep aids increases with age and education; more adult women (5 percent) used prescription sleep aids than adult men (3.1 percent)
- Non-Hispanic white adults were more likely to use sleep aids (4.7 percent) than non-Hispanic black adults (2.5 percent) and Mexican-American adults (2 percent)
- Prescription sleep aid use varied by sleep duration and was highest among adults who sleep less than five hours (6.0 percent) or more than nine hours (5.3 percent)
- One in six adults with a diagnosed sleep disorder and one in eight adults with trouble sleeping reported using sleep aids
The hardest hit group is the elderly—seven percent of individuals over the age of 80 are relying on prescription sleep aids, including hypnotic drugs (such as Ambien and Lunesta) and sedating antidepressants.
Are You Sleeping Better Than Your Pay Grade?
According to a recent British report, the less education you have and the lower your income, the poorer you tend to sleep.3 The report also found that the less money a couple makes, the less they sleep together.
The British report found that sleep also varies by occupation. For example, if you work in the arts, you're more likely to lie awake at night from worry or stress. But if you're an attorney, you're more likely to be successfully bagging your Zzzs.
These trends are quite concerning in light of the fact that the drugs prescribed for sleep come with a number of potentially serious risks—and they don't work that well for sleep to begin with.
Sleeping pills generally only increase the amount of time you sleep by a matter of minutes (a measly 11), and can impair your functioning the next day by making you less alert. They can also have a rebound effect—meaning, once you stop taking them, you may suffer "withdrawal" symptoms worse than the initial insomnia.
Who Benefits from Sleeping Pills?
Sleeping pills are a goldmine for the pharmaceutical industry. In 2011 alone, an estimated 40 million prescriptions for such drugs were dispensed.4 In 2011, sales of generic Ambien (zolpidem tartrate) amounted to a whopping $2.8 billion and Lunesta another $912 million.5 Prescription sleep aids are some of the most heavily marketed drugs to the public.
Lunesta's manufacturer Sepracor spent more than $215 million and added 450 salespeople to its physician marketing staff just to pitch the drug to doctors in 2005, when it was released.
And it paid off. Lunesta generated $329 million in sales its first nine months—with one sleep specialist saying it was the only time he'd ever experienced "a line of people outside his door waiting to try a new medicine."6
In 2005, Ambien and Ambien CR put close to $2.2 billion into Sanofi-Adventis' pockets.7 Unfortunately, the dangers of these drugs are as impressive as the profits they generate for Big Pharma. By taking prescription sleeping pills, you may be unknowingly putting your life in danger.
Tiny Pills, Big Risks
A startling study in 20128 revealed that people who take sleeping pills are not only at higher risk for certain cancers (35 percent higher), but they are also nearly four times as likely to die as people who don't take them. The list of health risks from sleeping pills is growing all the time, including the following:
- Higher risk of death, including from accidents
- Increased risk of cancer
- Increased insulin resistance, food cravings, weight gain and diabetes
- Complete amnesia, even from events that occurred during the day
- Depression, confusion, disorientation, and hallucinations
Studies recently submitted to the FDA revealed that blood levels of zolpidem (found in Ambien and other sleeping pills) above 50 ng/mL may impair your driving to a degree that increases the risk of an accident, especially among women. As a result, FDA recommended manufacturers cut the dosage of zolpidem from 10mg to 5mg for immediate-release products (Ambien, Edluar, and Zolpimist) and from 12.5 mg to 6.25 mg for extended-release products (Ambien CR).9
Are You Sleep-Tweeting?
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Aside from increasing your risk for premature death, by taking sleeping pills, you may be in for some extremely awkward experiences. Sleeping pills can cause a variety of strange behavioral reactions10 that are not only bizarre but also potentially risky—and at the very least embarrassing. The following are being reported with increasing frequency:
- Sleep eating (including bizarre things like buttered cigarettes, salt sandwiches, or raw bacon)
- Sleep-sex or "sexsomnia" (sexual acts carried out in your sleep)
- Sleep-texting or sleep-tweeting
These behaviors, called "parasomnias," are more common when you are stressed or sleep-deprived, but can also be triggered by certain medications, such as sedatives and hypnotics. Reports of "sleep-texting" are on the rise.11 Users are shocked to find messages they have no memory of sending—some of which are total gibberish. If this happens to you, you may want to hide your smart phone from yourself when you go to bed at night and avoid the use of sleeping pills, which may trigger a social media nightmare.
Dr. Lisa Fine, a neurologist at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, reported that people who use digital devices just before nodding off are more likely to use them during the night. She also stated that sleeping pills are known to cause people to use digital media in their sleep. Dr. Fine told KOMO News:12 "A person may text an inappropriate message emerging out of their unconscious mind that the conscious person would not want to send."
Insomnia Comes with Its Own Risks
It is extremely important to optimize the quality of your sleep, but drugs are not the answer. Just as sleeping pills come with serious risks, so does insomnia. Poor sleep adversely affects your immune system. Lack of sleep may directly increase your risk of developing a number of serious illnesses, such as:
- Viral and bacterial infections
- Stomach ulcers
- Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and many more
Poor quality sleep is associated with decreased production of melatonin, insulin resistance and weight gain. These three factors all contribute to cancer development. Studies have linked poor sleep with prostate cancer in men and aggressive breast cancer (and recurrence) in women. Even if your sleep is disturbed for only one night, there may be significant health risks. Studies show that losing even one hour of sleep, such as after making the switch to Daylight Saving Time, may increase your risk for a heart attack the next day.
Lack of sleep decreases leptin (your satiety hormone), while increasing ghrelin (your hunger hormone), which explains why night shift workers are at increased risk for obesity and diabetes. Researchers have also found higher rates of breast, prostate, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma among night shift workers. If you sleep poorly, you are more likely to crave junk foods and make poor food choices. This is because poor sleep amplifies the part of your brain responsible for cravings, while suppressing the part responsible for rational decision-making. In one study, sleepy people consumed 600 extra calories.13
Vitamin D for Sleepless Elders
A number of vitamin and mineral deficiencies may contribute to poor sleep, the three most common being potassium, magnesium and vitamin D. This is particularly important you are older. Studies indicate that vitamin D deficiency in the elderly has reached epidemic levels, because their skin produces less vitamin D and they spend less time in the sun.14 In addition to vitamin D's wide ranging health benefits, new evidence suggests it may play a role in sleep quality. This is a significant finding, as sleep drugs are even riskier for the elderly, making natural approaches very important. Although there are not yet many studies examining the connection between vitamin D and sleep, here are a few that I found:
- A study at Louisiana State University found that vitamin D plays a role in sleep, although the mechanism remains unclear. The relationship between vitamin D and sleep appears quite complex, with skin pigmentation being an additional factor.15, 16
- In a study at East Texas Medical Center, vitamin D supplementation improved sleep in a group of patients with neurologic complaints, possibly due to decreasing their pain.17
- In a study of veterans with chronic pain, researchers concluded that vitamin D supplementation decreased their pain, and improved their sleep and overall quality of life.18
- In a sleep apnea study, as the severity of the apnea increased, the more vitamin D seemed to help.19
Vitamin D is important for regulating your mood, energy, immune function, cognitive function, and many other things that are especially challenging as you age. It makes sense there would be a sleep connection—after all, practically everything affects your sleep!
Your should keep your serum vitamin D level between 50 and 70 ng/ml year-round, and the only way to determine this is with a blood test. Sun exposure or a safe tanning bed is the preferred method for increasing your vitamin D level, but a vitamin D3 supplement can be used if necessary. As a general guideline, research by GrassrootsHealth suggests most adults need about 8,000 IU's of vitamin D per day to achieve serum levels of 40 ng/ml.
It's important to remember that if you're taking high dose vitamin D supplements, you ALSO need to take vitamin K2. The biological role of vitamin K2 is to help move calcium into the proper areas in your body, such as your bones and teeth. It also helps remove calcium from areas where it shouldn't be, such as in your arteries and soft tissues. Vitamin K2 deficiency is actually what produces the symptoms of vitamin D toxicity, which includes inappropriate calcification that can lead to hardening of your arteries.
The reason for this is because when you take vitamin D, your body creates more vitamin K2-dependent proteins that move calcium around in your body. Without vitamin K2, those proteins remain inactivated, so the benefits of those proteins remain unrealized. So remember, if you take supplemental vitamin D, you're creating an increased demand for K2.
Better Options for a Good Night's Rest
Numerous factors can influence your sleep, and the good news is that many are under your control. Remember that sleeping pills are not the answer and will probably create more problems than they solve. Below are four strategies for optimizing your sleep, and you will find many more in my comprehensive sleep guide.
- Cover your windows with blackout shades or drapes to ensure complete darkness. Even the tiniest bit of light in your room, such as the glow of a bedside clock, can disrupt your sleep and therefore your melatonin production. 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 need a light, install so-called "low blue" light bulbs in your bedroom and bathroom, which 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 bedrooms too warm, which can result in restless sleep. Studies show the optimal room temperature for sleeping is fairly cool, between 60 to 68 degrees F (15.5 to 20 C).
- Check your bedroom for electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). These can disrupt your pineal gland's melatonin production. In order to do this, you will need a gauss meter, which can be purchased online for between $50 and $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. Put away your computer, TV, iPad, and all other similar gadgets at least and hour before bedtime, as they also emit blue light.
- Try Earthing. When walking barefoot on the earth, free electrons transfer from the ground into your body through the soles of your feet. These free electrons are some of the most potent antioxidants known to man. Experiments have shown that these electrons decrease pain and inflammation, and promote sound sleep. Spend more time with your bare feet in contact with the Earth. You may want to invest in an earthing sheet for your bed.
- Exercise to sleep better, but do it early! Exercising for at least 30 minutes per day can improve your sleep, but exercising too close to bedtime (generally within the three hours) may keep you awake.
- Avoid foods that interfere with sleep. The worst foods for sleep include alcohol, coffee, dark chocolate, spicy foods, and certain fatty foods.
- If you're feeling anxious or restless, try using the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which can clear emotional issues and alleviate stress and worries that keep you tossing and turning at night.