Death Pill or Sleep Aid?

By David Blyweiss, M.D., Advanced Natural Wellness

February 15, 2012

  • How drug commercials trick you
  • A pill for the bizarre… and cancer… and death
  • 5 tips for naturally deep sleep

I find America’s over dependence on prescription medications very disturbing. It’s something I deal with, each and every day.

Patients walk into my office asking for everything from weight loss pills to statin drugs. They’ve seen commercials for things like Xenical, Crestor, Viagra, Lunesta and Abilify. And they’re pretty convinced one of these drugs or another is exactly what they need to make their life perfect… so they do what the commecials tell them – “just ask your doctor”.

But there’s one thing my patients quickly learn about me. I won’t write them a prescription just because they ask for it.

They don’t always like that. Especially the new ones whose previous physician’s were quick to pull out the prescription pad. It makes me look like the “bad guy.”

What people often don’t realize is how good marketers are at their jobs. The advertisements for these medications use proven marketing techniques to grab your attention. And they do a great job of it.

In a single minute they can convince you – without a doubt – that whatever drug they’re advertising is just what you need, the one that will make you feel better, save your life or offer some other important health benefit.

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They even tell you about the side-effects of the drugs. But they try to trick you by burying these cautions in fine print, a low monotone or a fast-speaking voice. So it’s very easy for us to latch on to the positive message and completely miss the negative.

This is what I explained to S.B. today when she asked me to write her out a prescription for Ambien. She has never had problems sleeping before. But after having a little difficulty nodding off for a couple of nights, she was convinced she needed a sleep aid.

Worse, this is the third or fourth time in a matter of days that a patient has asked me for a sleep drug. And I find it very unsettling.

If you’re even remotely considering taking one of these drugs, let me tell you exactly what I told S.B…

It’s estimated that around 60 million prescriptions for sleep aids were filled in 2011 alone. That’s a frightening number when you take a look at some of the depressing research that accompanies these drugs.

First of all, eight separate studies show that sleep drugs only increase total sleep time by an average of about 25.2 minutes compared to placebo. Plus, memory loss, confusion and disorientation are 4.78 times more common in the users. Dizziness and loss of balance is 2.61 times more common and fatigue is almost 4 times more common.

So right off the bat, you may lose the benefits of that extra 25.2 minutes of sleep by being groggy and unbalanced the next day. And then there are the really crazy side effects we’ve been hearing so much about lately…

Not long ago, Australian researchers compared zolpidem (Ambien) to all other drugs in the adverse drug reaction database. They also compared it against other hypnotic drugs.

The researchers discovered a larger number of adverse events such as amnesia, hallucinations, suicidal tendencies and parasomnia when they compared zolpidem with all other drugs. They had the same results when they compared it only to other hypnotic drugs.

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Parasomnia is the one you’ve probably heard a lot about. This is when people engage in activities like driving, having sex, eating and sleepwalking without remembering it afterward.

It may sound bizarre, but these side effects are very real. I’ve met with patients who were shocked to discover they’d been eating in the middle of the night; or woke up to find they had put on make-up or changed their clothes while they were sleeping. With absolutely no memory of any of it!

And here’s even more alarming news.

A study published last year took a look at people who used all kinds of sleep aids, including Ambien, Lunesta, Restoril and Sonata. These folks were matched against a control group who didn’t take any of these hypnotic drugs.

The patients taking the sleep aids had approximately 4.6 times the risk of dying over an average period of 2.5 years when compared to non-users. Even patients who were prescribed just 1 to 18 sleeping pills per year had a greater risk. Their risk of death was 3.6 times higher than the control group.

But here’s the real whopper. Rates of new cancers were 35% higher among patients who were prescribed at least 132 doses of the drugs a year.

So you can see why I’d be real hesitant to pull out my prescription pad for anyone asking for sleeping pills. Especially when there are healthier and more natural ways to ensure you get a good night’s sleep.

I think big Pharma intentionally runs the ads for sleep drugs at midnight or one in the morning. That way, anyone who isn’t asleep yet – and still has their TV on – can lie in bed imagining how much better their life would be if they could just fly away on the wings of Lunesta.

However, the TV might be part of your problem. If you’re trying to fall asleep, shutting the television off should be one of your first priorities. Both the light coming from the screen and the noise of the programming are stimulating, not relaxing. Same goes for the computer, iPad and iPhone. All of them should be turned off or put away well before bedtime.

Here are a few other tips…

Sleep longer – and more deeply – with valerian and hops. In a study that compared the use of valerian (600 mg.) against a sleep aid, valerian was as effective as the sedative. In fact 83% of the participants rated valerian as “very good” compared to 73% who received the drug. Another study found that combining valerian and hops can improve total sleep time, quality of sleep and deep sleep.

Take time to relax before bedtime. When your body is in motion and your mind is racing, it takes awhile to calm down your senses so you can fall asleep. Try getting your more active and mentally challenging chores completed early in the evening. Then give yourself an hour or so to wind down before hitting the sack.

Better yet – if you can – take a warm bath with 2 scoops of Epsom salts. The magnesium in the salts relaxes you and the heat you lose when you get out of the bath drops your body temperature and makes you sleepy.

Drink a cup of green tea. While you’re unwinding, try sipping on a cup of green tea. Limited research shows the L-theanine in green tea can help you sleep better, recover from exhaustion and wake up feeling more refreshed.

Go to bed at the same time each night. If your sleep schedule is erratic, you’ll find it harder to fall asleep at night… and get up in the morning. Develop a regular sleep pattern by hitting the hay at the same time each night and arising at the same time each morning. If your schedule is really out of whack, you can try supplementing with 1 mg. of melatonin about an hour before bedtime each night.

Enjoy daytime activities and exercise. Staying active and getting regular exercise during the day promotes a healthy sleep. But you don’t want to exercise too late at night. It will rev you up and make it harder to fall asleep. So try and get your exercise or workout session completed a good four to five hours before bedtime.

It also helps to avoid afternoon naps, cut out caffeine after about 5 or 6 p.m. and start dimming the lights as bedtime approaches.

Glass J, Lanctôt KL, Herrmann N, Sproule BA, Busto UE. Sedative hypnotics in older people with insomnia: meta-analysis of risks and benefits. BMJ. 2005 Nov 19;331(7526):1169. Epub 2005 Nov 11.

Ben-Hamou M, Marshall NS, Grunstein RR, Saini B, Fois RA. Spontaneous adverse event reports associated with zolpidem in Australia 2001-2008. J Sleep Res. 2011 Dec;20(4):559-68. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2011.00919.x. Epub 2011 Apr 11.

Ziegler G, Ploch M, Miettinen-Baumann A, Collet W. Efficacy and tolerability of valerian extract LI 156 compared with oxazepam in the treatment of non-organic insomnia–a randomized, double-blind, comparative clinical study. Med Res. 2002 Nov 25;7(11):480-6.

Dimpfel W, Suter A. Sleep improving effects of a single dose administration of a valerian/hops fluid extract – a double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled sleep-EEG study in a parallel design using electrohypnograms. Eur J Med Res. 2008 May 26;13(5):200-4

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