It’s 3 a.m., and you have three hours left until your alarm goes off. Your mind is wandering and you can’t fall asleep. Whatever the reason for insomnia, whether it’s work, family or your unpaid bills, more and more people are now turning to a pill to help them get some z’s. The statistics are staggering, the most recent research showing 56 million sleeping pill prescriptions were filled in 2008, up 54% in just four years. Not surprising when you consider the number of Americans who sleep less than six hours a night jumped from 13% to 20% according to the National Sleep Foundation.
“If the choice is someone staying up all night, and not sleeping at all, then some amount of sleep is probably desirable,” says Dr. Atul Malhotra, the Medical Director of the Sleep Disorder Research Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Malhotra says sleeping pills are a good option to fight insomnia if simple behavioral changes, like avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and naps just don’t work. A lack of sleep, he says, can cause an increased risk of a heart attack, diabetes, weight gain, and even death. “There’s probably some risk to sleeping pills, but there’s also risk to poor quality of sleep. So that’s the message that I’d like to get across. If you’re sleeping 4 or 5 hours a night, it’s really bad for your health,” Dr. Malhotra says.
One side effect of sleeping pills that, some say, hasn’t made enough headlines is addiction, or dependency. We talked to one woman, who chose not to be identified due to the stigma attached to pill popping. She says she took a prescription sleep aid every night for 8 years. Told by her doctor, on several occasions, that addiction was not possible, at one point, she said she even doubled her dosage with his approval. “I trusted my physician and felt I was safe doing what I was doing at the dosage I was doing it,” the woman says. Until she got pregnant. Attempting to get off the drug cold turkey, she experienced what she calls major withdrawal. “It was really violent, it was like you see in the movies, heart racing, shaking, ears ringing, couldn’t stay in bed, get out of bed, just didn’t know what end was up,” the woman says,” I was totally dependent on this drug to function, and had I known that this could happen on the drug, I never ever would have chosen to take it in the first place.”
“I was taking it first on a Sunday night to sleep to start the work week and very quickly realized I couldn’t sleep without it. If I stopped taking it for a night, I’d be up all night the next night, and so I started upping my dose,” says Glamour magazine writer, and author of “The Impostor’s Daughter”, Laurie Sandell. Sandell says her usage spiraled out of control quickly into addiction. When her doctor wouldn’t prescribe her a higher dosage, she says she started doctor shopping, “If I saw I was down to one or two pills in a bottle, I would not only call various doctors to try to get it, but I would call friends, or my mom,” Sandell says she would go to any length to try to get more of the drug. Even after falling asleep in the bathtub after taking her meds, and nearly drowning, she was in denial. It took a second near death experience that made Sandell go into rehab to get off the pills. She now feels people need to know the risks,” it’s an epidemic as far as I’m concerned. I think people are starting to wake up to that fact.”
ADDICTION WARNING SIGNS:
Doctors tell us that sleeping pills, as with every drug, have the potential for abuse, and the benefits should outweigh the risks. The are relatively safe, they say, if taken as directed to get that much sought after night of sleep.