There’s a good chance that if you are struggling to get enough sleep your doctor will prescribe a tablet to help you to nod off.
Many good doctors know some of the dangers below and will only prescribe in very specific cases when a drug can aid recovery in the short term. Yet in 2014, 15 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were written, just in the United Kingdom, with another 55 million in the US. Sadly much of what we now know about sleep wasn’t understood when many of the drug formulations now in use were developed. Back then, we mistakenly confused loss of consciousness with sleep, it is now understood that the two are not the same. Why then are these drugs so widely prescribed when:
Benzodiazepines don’t induce true sleep. When we sleep properly our brain enters different states throughout the night, cycling through different depths of sleep around five times during 8 hours in bed. Sleeping pills cause drowsiness and but also inhibit REM sleep, the memory building and cleansing stage that also reduces our susceptibility to depression.
They can be addictive. “Non-benzodiazepine z-drugs like Zolpidem (Ambien) are also very popular and prone to many of the same problems as benzodiazepines.” Dr Michael Weaver, an addiction specialist, reporting on sedative abuse.
When trialled alongside placebos they delivered just a few minutes more sleep each night.
They are untested when used with other medicines! Given the gruelling testing that any drug entering the market must be subjected to, it’s somewhat concerning to learn that these tests don’t include studies into the impact of taking a second drug could have. Like any recipe when two or more ingredients are mixed they create a new outcome, it’s entirely possible that mixing two or more drugs can result in a mind-altering cocktail. It is well known that alcohol seriously escalates the risks, with one case in which a sleeping driver ran down three pedestrians having drunk wine prior to taking Ambien.
Ambien, (generically known as Zolpidem), dominates the market with widely reported side effects. A report by the UK and Australian drug authorities discovered 240 cases of sleepwalking, hallucinations and amnesia amongst these extreme cases of driving and operating stoves while asleep. When the actress Anna Kendrick shares some of her Ambien side effects on a chat show it’s amusing but somewhat concerning that she can be so active whilst believing she’s asleep:
A-list actor Jack Nicholson said about using Ambien
“I almost drove off a cliff, 50 yards from my house”
Natalie Portman shares his scepticism
“I get freaked out by pills. Everyone I know is always like, “I’m just going to take a Valium or an Ambien on the plane.” But I can’t do any of that stuff – it scares me.”
British house painter Sean Joyce caused panic on a US Airways flight to London when he threatened to kill himself and his fellow passengers having taken one Ambien pill and drinking two servings of wine. Normally such behaviour could result in a 20-year prison sentence but the prosecutor accepted that the outburst was due to the Ambien/alcohol cocktail and not a deliberate act.
Journalist and sleep deprived mum, Julia Sommerfeld admits to:
A 2am online shopping spree to the tune of $2980
Accepting an invitation to a party she didn’t want to attend
Eating sugar directly from the bag
Writing an email to her straight-laced boss, signing off “I love you!”
Sleep standing in a corner and laying in a dry bath tub.
All when she thought she was fast asleep in bed with the aid of Ambien. She only started to break what had become a nightly habit when her husband said “It’s like being married to a zombie – you actually are scaring me.” The wake up call was when he expressed his concern that she might attempt to drive with their son in the car during an episode.
Julia went cold turkey and stopped taking any sleeping pills, opting for a combination of melatonin, Chamomile tea, a cool bedroom, a warm bath, black-out curtains, shrouded electronics and breathing exercises, she acknowledges that there are some nights she still finds sleep hard to achieve but at least her son is safe from the nighttime zombie.
Whilst Ambien gets the most coverage, doctors regularly prescribe a wide variety of drugs to insomniacs, including antihistamines and anti-depressants, neither of which were designed to help people sleep. Poor diagnosis can hide a more significant issue. Our sleep is a good indicator of our general state of health, especially our mental well being. Physical conditions such as sleep apnea, hormonal changes and heart disease can often be discovered in patients reporting disturbed sleep. If a 10-minute consultation simply results in a sleep aid prescription it’s probable that a more serious underlying will go undetected and be allowed to worsen.
If you feel sleeping pills are the only way to resolve your sleeplessness, please talk to a sleep expert before accepting a prescription.