Having trouble sleeping?
You might want to think twice about popping those sleeping pills.
A new study from the Viterbi Family Sleep Center at the Scripps Sleep Center Clinic in San Diego is shaking the $2 billion industry – one that shows the potential for far worse side effects from the pills than those mentioned in the television commercials.
Namely, death and cancer.
In the 36-month trial of eight common sleeping drugs (including Ambien and Restoril), patients of similar ages, gender and health were put on the medication and matched with people of a similar makeup who received no pills.
The study revealed that people who took sleeping pills regularly saw their chances of death increase almost five-fold, compared with non-users. In addition, patients who took at least 132 doses had a 35% greater risk of getting cancer, versus those who didn’t take pills.
Even patients who only took one to 18 sleeping pills saw their risk of death increase by 3.6 times, compared with non-pill takers.
So much for a “good night’s sleep.”
Let’s take a look at the story…
Sleeping: A $2 Billion Business
Sleeping has become big business.
According to IMS Health, Americans filled out 60 million sleeping pill prescriptions in 2011 – up 27% from 2006. And needless to say, such growth has proved lucrative, with drug companies raking in $2 billion in annual sales from the pills.
And while safety standards are strict, sleeping pills are still “drugs.” More specifically, they’re classed as “sedative hypnotics,” which can carry a risk of perceived dependency and trigger withdrawal symptoms if users stop taking them too suddenly. In turn, this could push a user into agitation, depression and have the reverse effect… more insomnia.
Interestingly, Science Daily notes that the drugs used in the trial were considered safer than older hypnotics, due to the fact that they’re shorter-term medications.
To Count Sheep Or Pop a Pill? That is the Question…
Quoted in The New York Times, Dr. Steven Woloshin, Professor of Medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, classifies insomnia as:
“Less than six-and-a-half hours of sleep, and it takes you 30 minutes or more to fall asleep.”
Now far be it from me to argue with a doctor, but this seems like a rather entry-level definition of insomnia. I mean, there are varying degrees of the disorder, which could be fleeting or long term in nature and triggered by any number of reasons. And different people require different amounts of sleep.
For example, I personally fulfill the “less than six-and-a-half hours” part on most nights! But I don’t consider myself to be an insomniac.
But he points out an interesting fact…
“Even when the drugs work better than placebos, and they don’t always, people still don’t fall asleep in less than 30 minutes, and they still don’t sleep much longer than six hours.”
He’s referring to FDA studies of two drugs: Lunesta and Sonata. By the numbers…
- Lunesta: Patients on a 10-milligram dose took 30 minutes to fall asleep, compared with 45 minutes for the placebo subjects. They then slept for six hours and 22 minutes, which was only 37 minutes longer than the placebo group.
- Sonata: Again on a 10-milligram dose, subjects took an average of 36 minutes to fall asleep, just 14 minutes less than the placebo group. They stayed asleep for six hours and 20 minutes.
But that’s just the sleeping part. What do the drug companies make of the serious charge in the latest study that sleeping pills increase the risk of death and cancer?
Well, don’t expect them to interrupt the angels and idyllic dream sequences in their sleeping pill commercials with pesky warnings. As you might expect, they’ve objected to the findings.
Studies Paint a Poor Picture for Sleeping Pills
Calling it “highly questionable,” Sanofi (NYSE: SNY), which makes Ambien, noted that the trial was too short to form conclusions regarding the drugs triggering cancer.
In addition, healthcare experts have pointed out that there’s only a potential link between the drugs and cancer and death, not conclusive facts. But to be fair, the study’s directors noted that, too.
Quoted in Science Daily, Dr. Daniel Kripke, who led the study at the Scripps Sleep Center Clinic, states:
“What our study shows is that sleeping pills are hazardous to your health and might cause death by contributing to the occurrence of cancer, heart disease and other ailments.”
Nevertheless, The New York Times notes three wider studies that show the potential dangers of sleeping pills…
- In 2007, a Norwegian study of 15,000 participants found that men on sleeping pills were 1.5 times more likely to die than non-users, while women were 1.7 times more likely.
- In 2010, Canadian scientists put 14,000 people on sleeping medication and the results showed a similar risk of death to the Norway trial.
- A longer-term Swedish study in 2009 concluded that after tracking its sleeping pill subjects for 20 years, they were 4.5 times more likely to die from the side effects of sleeping medication than non-users.
Sobering stuff. I don’t know about you… but if I need a sleeping aid, I’ll stick to a more tried-and-tested – and less deadly – method: A glass of red wine. It’s much more satisfying, too!