The Hidden Dangers of Sleeping Pills–and Why Women Are More at Risk

On any given night, there are a million and one worries weighing on our minds. There’s money issues to worry about. Workplace squabbles we turn over and over in our heads. Why did we volunteer to chaperone at the kids’ school event? Did we remember to call the contractor about that leaky ceiling? If you want to escape the prison that is your own mind, your smartphone’s only a few inches away. Let’s see… open up your Times app and there’s the latest on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Not what you want to think about as you’re attempting to unwind. Mindlessly flick through Instagram instead. Now your celebrity-speckled feed has you pondering hitting the gym.

The bottom line? You’re nowhere near sleep.

It’s totally unsurprising that, between 1999 and 2010, rates of prescription sleep medication use rose significantly. All it takes is one look at newspaper headlines, technological developments, and stock market patterns to understand why the general spike in usage. Before the new millennium, only about two percent of the United States’ population took sedatives. Nowadays, any given night more than six million adults pop some form of benzodiazepine or non-benzodiazepine sedative hypnotics before they hit the hay.

Similarly, we’re not completely shocked that women are more likely to use these medications than men. According to the National Sleep Foundation, women are biologically conditioned not to sleep as well as men, putting us at greater risk for insomnia. This is due to the fluctuation of hormone levels (i.e. estrogen and progesterone) in our bodies throughout the month and over our lifetime. At the same time, also due to biology, women don’t process certain sleep aids (Ambien, for example) as quickly as men. According to Dr. Peter Rice of the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, “Men have higher testosterone levels than women, which makes them (men) metabolize it more rapidly.”

Which groups are more likely to resort to sleep aids, besides women? According new research, older adults (ages 40 and up) tend to use sleep medication more frequently. People with higher incomes ($75,000 or more per year), individuals in poor health, and people with mental health issues are also associated with increased use of sleep medications.

On a similar note, certain groups are also more susceptible not only to the lure, but to the side effects of sleeping pills. Another recent study demonstrated that 15 percent of women would still be impaired if they attempted to drive eight hours after taking zolpidem [a common ingredient in sleep medications], as opposed to only three percent of men. For this reason, the FDA requires manufacturers of certain sleep aids to offer lower doses to women.

Sadly, the side effects of sleeping pills go far beyond inability to operate heavy machinery the following day. In the short term, concerns include changes in appetite, difficulty keeping balance, heart burn, stomach pain, weakness, uncontrollable shaking, and slowed breathing, which is particularly dangerous for people with lung problems like asthma. If taken regularly over an extended period, anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Librium are potentially addictive.

Still more troubling, a 2012 study by Dr. Daniel Kripke, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, found that people who use common prescription sleep medications were at higher risk of premature death and demonstrated higher incidents of cancer. “We know [sleep aids] make sleep apnea worse. We know they cause automobile accidents, depression, and infection. But the most important effects are controversial—increased mortality and increased cancer,” Kripke stated. To top it off, these pills don’t even fulfill their intended service, according to Kripke: “There’s no objective evidence that sleep medications help people perform better the next day. The majority of studies show they impair the performance the next day.”

It gets worse—recent research by experts at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard University showed that “among the millions of people using sleep medications, there are many who are using multiple medications at once, putting them at greater risk for complications and adverse reactions.” Furthermore, “Researchers found that more than half—58.1 percent—of respondents who said they’d used any type of pill or medication for sleep in the past month did not report using prescription sleep medication. This suggests that for all the millions of people using prescription sleep aids, an even greater number of people are using non-prescription medicines for sleep.”

It’s easy to extrapolate the related physical and environmental stressors that lead certain demographics to take sleep-inducing supplements. When exhaustion leads to desperation a quick dose of benzo is a much more appealing (and immediate) alternative to total lifestyle overhaul. However, because they’re highly addictive and potentially life-threatening—not to mention ineffective—it’s important that you consult your doctor before using sleep aids and refrain from whipping up your own drug cocktails. In general, authorities believe the use of sleeping pills has gotten out of control.

What, then, is the solution to sleepless nights? Natural pills like melatonin are also a viable alternative to breaking out the big (habit-forming) guns. In addition to the fact that biological and environmental factors are at play, most of us make it more difficult for ourselves to finally get some rest when the time comes by participating in a variety of sleep-depriving activities throughout the day. Click through the slideshow above for eight ways to make your daily routine more conducive to healthy rest. Easier said than done in this day and age, we know, but worth a try nonetheless.