Counting Dangerous Sheep: Why You Should Stop Popping Sleeping Pills

Those "safe" sleep aids you've been taking might not be so safe.

Here’s a question for you: How much sleep do you get every night?

As adults, the Centers for Disease Control tells us we require seven to eight hours of sleep per night to maintain good health. Of course, we don’t always get these hours. All kinds of things interfere: crying babies, work schedules, barking dogs, a bad mattress. For many, however, the problem is insomnia.

Between one-third and one-half of Americans have the dreaded sleep disorder known as insomnia. That makes for a lot of sleep-deprived individuals out there, each dreaming of the Zzz’s that nightly escape them.

Pharmaceuticals Don’t Equal Restful Sleep

As we seek the solace of sleep, many of us turn to medication. Sleeping pills are a general go-to for insomniacs; Americans spent over $40 billion on sleep aids in 2015.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, sleeping pills pose a ton of health risks and put you at risk of addiction, which is especially concerning when we look at the frequency and duration of their use. Here’s a couple stats to put that in perspective:

  • Forty-one percent of those who use over-the-counter sleep aids take them for a year or longer.
  • Forty-eight percent use the meds several times each week.

Don’t Count Medicated Sheep!

One small consolation is that the pills prescribed today are less dangerous than the ones doctors doled out in the past. Benzodiazepines used to be the medical community’s “go-to” solution for sleep disorders, but they are extremely addictive and pose the risk for serious side effects and overdose.

Today, doctors are prescribing fewer of those dangerous pills. Instead, they’ve turned to a new class of drugs called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) medications. These pose less risk of addiction (although it’s not completely eliminated) and affect the body in very similar ways to benzodiazepines. You might be familiar with some of the popular brands – Lunesta, Ambien and Sonata.

Though these new medications appear to pose less of a threat, they still have risks. Even over-the-counter sleep aids aren’t without danger – it doesn’t matter if they have cute, fluffy sheep as mascots. Of all the dangers, however, the most concerning is their deadly effects when combined with other drugs. For example, sleep aids should never be consumed in combination with alcohol; it can be a lethal combo.

Sleeping pills can also cause “disturbed sleep behaviors,” including actions like sleep-driving and sleep-eating. Many people report doing all kinds of weird things in their sleep without being aware of their actions. The more “common” side effects of sleeping pills include:

  • Tingling in the arms and legs
  • Appetite changes
  • Diarrhea
  • Balance issues/dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Gas
  • Headache
  • Heartburn
  • Mental/memory/attention problems
  • Stomach pain
  • Uncontrollable shaking
  • Weakness

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