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Why Sleeping Pills Are Considered the Number 1 Most Dangerous Drug?

Susanna Sisson's picture
Sleeping pill risks

Sleeping pills - (zolpidem (e.g., Ambien), temazepam (e.g., Restoril), eszopiclone (e.g., Lunesta), zaleplon (e.g., Sonata), other benzodiazepines such as triazolam (e.g., Halcion) and flurazepam (e.g., Dalmane), barbiturates, and sedative antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (e.g., Benadryl).


Sleeping pills may seem helpful and even innocuous; however, in a 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.” [1]

In addition, sleeping pills have been shown to cause cancer in animal studies and there is evidence that sleeping pills cause cancer in people. According to Daniel F. Kripke, M.D. author of The Dark Side of Sleeping Pills Mortality and Cancer Risks, Which Pills to Avoid and Better Alternatives, “I first became interested when I saw the work of Dr. E. Cuyler Hammond at the American Cancer Society. In 1975, I went to visit The American Cancer Society, starting a collaboration which lasted for many years. American Cancer Society data from over 1 million people showed that use of sleeping pills was associated with more deaths within 6 years, but insomnia by itself was not associated with any death risk.” [2]

As of January, 2012, there were 24 published studies of the mortality risks of sleeping pills. Of the 22 studies which reported either greater or lesser mortality associated with sleeping pills, 21 studies showed that people taking sleeping pills died at an earlier age. (The 22nd study found no mortality risk of sleeping pills but did find sleeping pill usage associated with increased cancer deaths.)
A strange new finding from researchers at Scripps Clinic is that people who take sleeping pills such as eszopiclone, zaleplon, and zolpidem have about a 44% higher risk of developing infections which include sinusitis, pharyngitis, upper respiratory tract infections, influenza, herpes, and so forth. Although there has been essentially no discussion of this risk in the medical literature, it is statistically extremely convincing, based on studies which the manufacturers submitted to the FDA and some of their published controlled trials of increased risk of infection. [3]

Zolpidem (and probably other sleeping pills) relax the stomach sphincter and cause gastro-esophageal regurgitation. The acid irritation may lead to infection. Incidentally, acid regurgitation may also lead to esophageal cancer, which is one of the cancers most greatly increased among sleeping pill users. [4]

There are other dangers as well with the use of sleeping pills, especially if someone has sleep apnea. Because sleeping pills risk making sleep apnea worse, many experts recommend that people with apnea not be given sleeping pills.

A risk for the elderly includes a decreases tolerance to medication, decreased clearance of drugs due to possible kidney issues and risk of falls.

Phyllis A. Balch, CNC, author of Prescription for Nutritional Healing, writes that “people who take sleeping pills on a regular basis are 50 percent more likely to die in accidents. Drowsiness accounts for 200,000 – 400,000 automobile accidents every year, and it is responsible for two thirds of all industrial mishaps, most common among shift workers in the early morning hours.”

Another consideration according to Dr. Kripke is impairment of daytime thinking. “The side effects of the prescription sleeping pills are much like their benefits. At night, we want our brain cells to stop working (unless we need to get up in the middle of the night), so sleeping pills make the brain less active. If the sleeping pill is in the blood during the day, it will make the daytime brain less active and less functional. The problem is that no sleeping pill remains in the blood all night, impairing consciousness, and then suddenly evaporates at the moment of awakening. Besides, a large percentage of people who take sleeping pills do often get up at night, at a time when the sleeping pill could cause falls or confusion. Most of the marketed prescription hypnotics, when taken at bedtime, will remain in the blood with at least half strength when morning comes.” Sleeping pills generally make function worse the next day.

Not only are sleeping pills carcinogenic, use by people with sleep apnea may lead to an increase in deaths, cause more tiredness and a decrease in function. They also cause depression according to studies cited by Dr. Kripke and people who use sleeping pills have an increased risk and incidence of suicide.

Balch claims that “sleeping pills are the third most commonly used means in suicide and are implicated in one third of all drug-related suicide attempts and deaths.”

Addiction to sleeping pills is another major concern. “All prescription hypnotics (with the exception of Ramelteon and the new drug Silenor) may be physically addicting drugs, and all are sometimes attractive to drug addicts. By addicting, we mean that these drugs have two properties. First, when we take addicting drug such as narcotics or barbiturates, we develop tolerance so that a given dosage has less and less effect or “stops working.” People who develop tolerance are prone to increase their dosage more and more. I frequently see this problem with long-term users of sleeping pills. Second, addicting drugs cause physical withdrawal symptoms when they are stopped abruptly. The withdrawal symptoms of hypnotics such as barbiturates and benzodiazepines are very well known.[5] They include shakiness and tremor, nervousness and anxiety, panic, hyperactivity and increased reflexes, rapid heart rate, and epileptic seizures and death in the most severe cases. In one sense, the withdrawal syndrome with hypnotics can be worse than withdrawal from heroin, because while the heroin addict experiences withdrawal as a terrible anguish, it is rare that addicts do not survive even the most severe heroin withdrawal. Severe withdrawal of sleeping pills can produce death. The risk of seizures and death is probably more severe with withdrawal of barbiturates than with benzodiazepines. On the other hand, zolpidem (Ambien) seems less prone to cause withdrawal symptoms than the barbiturates or benzodiazepines. As compared to heroin, the withdrawal syndrome may be more lasting with the hypnotics, perhaps more than a month in some cases, though too little controlled experimentation has been done to be really sure.”

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In recent years there have been several incidences of amnesia and bizarre behavior reported in people using sleeping pills. Recently in Houston, Texas a woman was found sleeping in her car in the drive thru at a McDonald’s. The last thing she remembered was taking a sleeping pill. I have a friend who woke up 60 miles from home in her car, not knowing how she got there; the night before she had taken Ambien. Other more serious cases have been reported in those taking sleeping pills, including a case in which a man murdered his sister yet had no memory of doing so. There have been so many other cases that the phrase ‘Ambien defense’ has been coined and defendants are sometimes called ‘Ambien zombies’.

Concomitant use of sleeping pills with other drugs or alcohol increases the effects and should be taken into consideration when using or prescribing as they have a synergistic effect and an increased risk of death. So, while it may seem innocent enough to take a prescription drug for sleep, there are many serious side effects that should be thoughtfully considered.

What are alternatives to prescription sleeping pills?
James F. Balch, M.D., author of Prescription for Nutritional Healing, writes, “A lack of the nutrients calcium and magnesium will cause you to wake up after a few hours and not be able to return to sleep.” [6]

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that insomnia tends to increase with age and affects about 40 percent of women and 30 percent of men.

Magnesium has been called “nature’s muscle relaxant.” It calms the central nervous system and acts as a sedative. Magnesium actually suppresses nerve activity, which leads to a decrease in muscle twitches and jerks, therefore decreasing incidents of night waking. [7]

For these reasons, healthy levels of magnesium have been linked to deep, undisturbed sleep. Calcium is also directly related to our cycles of sleep, according to Medical News Today. They recommend that a balanced ratio of calcium and magnesium is important to overall health, and these two minerals should be taken together for best results.

Low levels of magnesium can contribute to frequent nighttime waking. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to several insomnia-inducing conditions, including restless leg syndrome (RLS) and night terrors. [7]

Magnesium also plays an important role in hydration, energy production and the deactivation of adrenaline. Having sufficient magnesium in your body does not necessarily guarantee that you will go into a deep sleep quickly and stay there, writes nutritional therapist Marek Doyle, but insufficient stores of the mineral guarantee that you won’t. [8]

What are symptoms of a magnesium deficiency?
• Difficulty falling asleep
• Waking easily in the night
• Waking before the alarm
• Cramping regularly
• Cold hands and feet
• Tightness in neck and shoulders

Natural sources of magnesium include:
• Green leafy vegetables including brown seaweed which is naturally high both calcium and magnesium [9]
• Certain beans and nuts (like almonds)
• Whole, unrefined grains, like wheat.
• Tap water (particularly hard tap water) can also be a source of magnesium.
• Animal sources include red meats, poultry, fish

If you continue to have difficulty sleeping while eating the proper foods Balch recommends taking 400-500 mg of magnesium before you go to sleep to improve your night’s rest. This natural muscle relaxant can give you the nights of calm and peace that your body needs before you tackle another challenging and productive day.

1. BMJ
2. Dark Side of Sleeping Pills
4. Other Risks of Sleeping Pills
5. Lader, MH. Limitations on the use of benzodiazepines in anxiety and insomnia: are they justified? European Neuropsychopharmacology. 1999;9:S399-S405.
6. Medical News Today
7. Baby Sleep Side
8. Help Me Sleep: Magnesium Is the Secret for Sleep Problems
9. Benefits of Eating Organic Seaweed