Many people rely on sleeping pills to help them through sleepless nights. It seems like such a simple solution, but did you know that sleeping pills come with significant dangers?
Sleeping pills were never intended for long-term use. The vast majority of sleep aids are only meant to be for short term use. Even with short term use, there are plenty of risks.
Increased risk of cancer or early death
While it might seem surprising in relation to sleeping pills, the scary truth is that there is in fact an increased risk of cancer or early death with sleeping pill usage. Even moderate sleeping pill use can cause this increased risk.
A study showed that those who took only 18 or less sleeping pills a year had over three times the risk of death of those who did not take any1. Even worse, those who took over 132 sleeping pills a year had five times the risk of death and 32 times the risk of cancer, compared with those who did not take any (see reference 1).
Sleeping pill tolerance, dependence and withdrawal
A major problem of sleeping pills is that the user's body can then get accustomed to them, especially over longer term use. This means that the pills are no longer as effective at helping the person sleep.
Becoming used to the pills also results in dependence. This means that the body is so accustomed to having a sleeping pill at night time that it becomes even harder to sleep without the pill than it was before starting on sleeping pills.
Withdrawal is another problem for users of sleeping pills. This means that if the person stops using sleeping pills abruptly, they can suffer unpleasant symptoms. These can be sweating, nausea and shaking.
So as you can see, sleeping pills cause many additional problems when the person's body becomes accustomed to them. These problems actually put the user in a worse position than they were before they started using the pills.
Adverse interactions with other medications
Sleeping pills can be especially harmful when in combination with other prescription or non-prescription medications. In particular, sleeping pills clash dangerously with certain prescription painkillers or sedatives, often requiring emergency hospital attention2.
Serious side effects
Even when sleeping pills are taken without any other prescription or over-the-counter medications, sleeping pills can still have serious side effects by themselves. Some of these side effects are3 and 4:
- Daytime drowsiness
- Shallow breathing
- Confusion or forgetfulness
- Blurred vision
- Dry mouth and throat
- Constipation and urinary retention
- Sleepwalking (rarer)
In other words, some people have trouble functioning normally during the day after taking sleeping pills. This is counterproductive! In fact this problem actually defeats the ultimate aim of taking the pills: to allow the person to function normally the next day.
So what should people with insomnia do?
At the moment, if you suffer from insomnia, you are probably asking yourself "So what should I do: avoid sleeping pills and be sleepy all day, or take sleeping pills and be groggy all day and have extra health risks?"
The correct answer from sleep experts is "Neither" 3. Instead, it is strongly recommended that insomniacs seek alternative therapies. These can be surprisingly effective if therapies are followed through properly. All too often people assume that it won't work so they don't try2. Also, not everyone is willing to put in the time and effort each day to properly follow through a specified regime. A sleeping pill seems attractive at first glance because it is often thought of as a 'quick fix' - yet this comes with considerable disadvantages and dangers, as we have just learned.
Now for the good news: if an alternative therapy is appropriately chosen and followed through this can be equally effective, or even more so, than sleeping pills4. Let's find out more about some of these natural alternatives.
Effective natural alternatives to sleeping pills and medication
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of psychotherapy designed to eliminate negative thoughts and worries. Although CBT can be used in a general sense for many problems, it can be applied in a much more specific way to treat insomnia2. This is done by eliminating the types of anxious thought patterns which typically keep an insomniac up at night. CBT also aims to change behaviours, including changing the pattern of typical actions and activities before bedtime.
CBT is an all-natural approach which does not require any medicines. It does require a certain level of commitment from the patient each and every day. However, its results are proven to be well worth it4, and it contains no risks, unlike sleeping pills.
Inability or unwillingness to physically relax the muscles (as opposed to mental stress) can be a cause of insomnia. In that situation, relaxation techniques are an ideal therapy to ease the muscles from tension and unconscious clenching4. Typical relaxation therapies involve things like breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation exercises.
Many people find that relaxation techniques also benefit them mentally by allowing them to deal better with stress and not let it get to them.
Exercise as a sleep therapy
Exercise is all too often neglected by the (understandably) exhausted insomniac. But unfortunately this behaviour is counterproductive. Exercise can and should be used specifically as a sleep therapy4. Even if the person has no other health issues aside from the insomnia and is not overweight, exercise is a necessary tool to reclaim sleep.
Doing aerobic exercise that finishes about an hour or two before bedtime is ideal in terms of acting as a sleep therapy4. Some examples of this type of exercise are: brisk walking, jogging, jump rope, dancing, or using a stationary bicycle or treadmill.
A comfortable sleeping environment
All too often, people who suffer insomnia do not realize that they may be sleeping in an uncomfortable environment. An old or sagging mattress can hinder sleep through discomfort. A new, ultra-comfortable mattress can do a lot to improve quality of sleep.
Many osteopaths, chiropractors and other wellness professionals recommend a latex mattress for the utmost in comfort. Latex is all-natural and possesses inherent springiness and resiliency. When you lie down on a latex mattress, you will get a sensation of soft sinking comfort followed by gentle support. This will certainly help ensure that your bedroom is a sleep-friendly environment.
The truth is that sleeping pills are surprisingly risky and come with significant side effects. Sleeping pills and sleep aids are not meant for long term use.
The good news is that there are plenty of all-natural therapies that are actually effective, provided the person follows through with the regime. Try some or all of these natural alternatives. They are not mutually exclusive - indeed, these approaches taken together will complement each other well to give you the best chance to sleep normally.
1: "Prescription Sleeping Pills Tied to Increased Risk for Death, Cancer" by Ryan Jaslow in CBS News, February 2012.
4: "Sleeping Pills and Natural Sleep Aids" by Lawrence Robinson and Gina Kemp in HelpGuide.org, May 2013.