That sounds like an overly dramatic blog title, I’m sure, but it’s actually the truth. The National Institutes of Health funded a meta-analysis of 105 studies that examined efficacy of sedative sleeping medications. Sedative sleeping medications are the most common prescriptions for treating insomnia. Some sedative sleeping medications (called “sedative hypnotics”) include:
- Klonopin (generic name clonazepam)
- Ativan (generic name lorazepam)
- Xanax (generic name alprazolam)
- Lunesta (generic name eszopiclone)
- Ambien (generic name zolpidem)
- Sonata (generic name zaleplon)
One finding of this meta-analysis was that these medications are not superior to placebos. The researchers had the participants wired up to EEG machines so they could see the actual brain waves and know for certain how long it took for participants to fall asleep. The results showed that people taking the sleep medications increased their total sleep time by only ten minutes compared to people who took the placebo.
A different meta-analysis (this is an analysis of a group of studies which effectively, effectively turning a bunch of smaller studies into one giant study) of 34 studies looked at mortality rates among those who use prescription sleep medications. In 33 of the 34 studies, the researchers found an elevated risk of mortality among prescription sleep medication users. (Notably, none of those studies found any benefit to mortality from taking the sedative medications for sleep). Three of those 34 studies also found increased risk of cancer.
So how elevated is the risk of dying? A study which looked at more than one million participants found a whopping 25 percent increase in mortality from sleeping pill use. In fact, the risk of taking sleeping pills nightly is almost comparable to smoking a pack of cigarettes each day. In particular, the use of these medications led to increased deaths from:
- respiratory depression and cardiac arrest
- depression and suicide
- car accidents
- falls and fractures
To be fair, many of the studies discussed here looked at older sleeping medications, such as Restoril, because they predated modern drugs such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata. However, one study did find an elevated mortality risk with Ambien.
So what’s a person to do when it takes hours to fall asleep (or they wake up for hours in the middle of the night) if they shouldn’t take a sleeping pill? The recommended first line treatment for chronic insomnia is CBT-I, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. It is highly effective, safe, brief, and will free you of a dependence upon prescription or over-the-counter sleep medications for sleep. And, in fact, you will have better quality, more restful sleep when you sleep without the use of medications because they interfere with the sleep architecture, often suppressing the deep sleep stage (the most restorative sleep) and the REM or dream stage (which is involved in memory). I’ve helped people who have had insomnia for more than 30 years end their insomnia and reclaim their bed as a place of peace and sanctuary. It’s highly likely I can help you, too. Call or text me at (816) 226-4678.