Sleeping pills are a Band-Aid. They don’t get to the root of why you can’t sleep.
I know it may be tempting to take these drugs when you’re desperate. Not being able to sleep is horrible, especially if you have nights where you hardly sleep at all, like some of my clients do. So I understand the desperation to get some sleep, any kind of sleep.
Sleeping pills are going to make things worse for you. They aren’t good for you. They’re addictive, they’re toxic and they don’t give you real sleep.
Medication for sleep has its place, such as for jet lag or during acute stressful times, but these pharmaceuticals aren’t meant to be used long term.
Sleeping pills don’t really work. A team analyzing 65 other studies looking at placebos vs. sleeping pills found that even though the participants thought they fell asleep faster and slept more soundly when they took a sleeping pill, their brainwaves showed that they had only “slight improvements in subjective and polysomnographic sleep latency” (the time it takes to fall asleep).
Another problem with prescription sleeping aids is they sedate you so you don’t fall into natural sleep. They affect the cerebellum, the same part of your brain that alcohol affects, and target the receptors that stop your brain cells from firing. Prescription sleep aids also produce an imbalance in chemical signals and decrease the time you spend in REM and deep sleep, a 2015 study concluded.
Your brain is supposed to cement new memories during natural deep sleep. When you take a sedating drug, this doesn’t happen. In fact, the opposite occurs, according to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania. This study on animals found that when taking Ambien, they had a 50% unwiring of the connections that had been formed during learning. As Matthew Walker concludes in “Why We Sleep,” “ambien-laced sleep became a memory eraser, rather than engraver.”
If you can’t sleep, your body isn’t making the feel-good chemicals dopamine, serotonin, GABA and melatonin like it should. Sleeping pills mess up your brain chemistry and make it even harder for your body to produce these chemicals. These drugs also put an extra burden on your liver, which is already overburdened in many people with health and sleep problems.
The side effects of sleeping pills include:
• Brain fog.
• Difficulty waking up.
• High blood pressure.
• Memory loss.
• Strange, unexplained behavior.
Sleeping pills can make you feel hungover, groggy, and foggy because you spend less time in deep and REM sleep.
Sleep aids are addictive, and they aren’t meant to be taken long term. You will need to take more and more for them to work. As with other drug tolerances, the receptors in your brain become less sensitive to the drug over time. This is why when you stop taking them you can also experience withdrawal and rebound insomnia, making it even harder to quit.
Another reason these prescription pills can be scary is that they can mask other conditions such as anxiety, depression, asthma, allergies, ulcers, chronic pain, heart problems, diabetes and dementia.
These pills can be dangerous for those with sleep apnea. People with sleep apnea who normally have two to 18 apneas a night have 100 apneas a night when they take a sleeping pill because the pills relax the airways.
Sleep meds increase the risk of dying by four times and the risk of cancer by 3.5 times, according to a study from 2012. It’s scary that these outcomes were found for short-term, low doses of 18 pills a year.
There are two classes of prescription sleeping pills:
• Benzodiazepines are 50 years old but are still prescribed. They are highly addictive, and tolerance builds up quickly. They’re most commonly used for anxiety, and they include the drugs Valium, Librium, Ativan, and Xanax. The side effects can be increased anxiety, agitation and memory dysfunction and they won’t work for more than three weeks.
• Hypnotics are a new class of drugs that work on GABA receptors in the brain that controls alertness. These include Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata. Zolpidem, the active ingredient in Ambien, helps knock you out but won’t help you stay asleep. These sleep aids are marketed as being safer and less addictive.
If you Google “Lunesta commercial,” you see a beautiful one-minute ad of moth wings easing you into sleep. A full 30 seconds of the ad, however, lullingly lists the many side effects.
There have been reports of off behavior like people eating strange things, leaving their bathtubs running and their ovens on, sleep driving, calling people, and having sex all while “asleep.” In 2010, almost 20,000 people in the U.S. visited the ER from taking these drugs.
What’s the answer?
The reason you can’t sleep isn’t because you’re deficient in Ambien.
You aren’t sleeping because your body isn’t healthy. Sleeping pills get your body even more out of whack. They’re a Band-Aid that doesn’t get to the root of the problem and makes everything worse.
To get off sleeping pills, you need to address why you can’t sleep first and work on fixing it. The most common reasons people can’t sleep are hormone imbalance, an unhealthy gut, and high cortisol at night. Functional lab testing will show what systems in your body aren’t working properly so we know what to correct. Once you address the root of the problem you can wean off meds with your doctor’s guidance.
Instead of making your health worse with drugs that sedate you, you can restore health so you can sleep normally.
As always, wishing you a good night’s sleep.