A new study shows prescription sleeping pills increase the risk of early death—and of getting cancer. 60 million prescriptions for sleeping pills—technically called hypnotic drugs—were filled in 2011, up from 47 million in 2006.
It is well known that lack of sleep causes all kinds of havoc, including raising the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and even obesity. But, this new study published in the British Medical Journal says that people taking a prescription sleeping pill—even when taking fewer than eighteen pills per year—have nearly four times the mortality rate of those who don’t take the drugs. And patients who take higher doses of sleeping pills have a 35% increased cancer risk.
This study was prompted by earlier studies showing that hypnotic drugs are often deadly when mixed with alcohol or other drugs, are linked to an increased risk of car accidents and falls, may raise risk of suicide, and may damage chromosomes in cells which could lead to cancer.
What was significant about this study is that it was long-term, keeping track of 10,529 people who had at least one prescription for a sleeping pill between 2002 and 2007, compared with a control group. While the study doesn’t demonstrate causation, it did adjust for confounding factors such as age, smoking, weight, and other health conditions.
So why is FDA approving such dangerous drugs? First, the clinical trials required for FDA approval are grossly inadequate when it comes to hypnotic drugs. Many people take prescription sleeping pills for years, even though most are approved for only short-term use and their safety and effectiveness were only studied for several weeks in clinical trials. The longest tested one is Lunesta, which was tested for up to six months, and its list of known side effects is terrifying.
Let's compare it to the FDA’s standard for supplements: the NDI draft guidance requires "25 years of widespread use" in order to meet the "history of safe use" standard, which must be met even for grandfathered supplements. As the Life Extension Foundation points out, the safety testing required by FDA is wildly inappropriate for supplements, and is unnecessary for natural products with years of documented safe use. Yet despite their superb track record for safety, FDA and the media have cultivated an environment of fear around nutritional supplements—while maintaining a casual attitude toward dangerous prescription drugs.
If you are wrestling with a sleep problem, then wrestle with it! But, do not take prescription sleeping pills. There isn't one that is safe or any good. Do all the natural things to improve your sleep, such as eating well, exercising, getting sun, and reducing stress. Then, if you are going to take something, stick to safe natural supplements such as low-dose melatonin, theanine (the calming amino acid from green tea), taurine (another amino acid with calming effects) lemon balm (which I consider to be the best of the relaxing herbs) and magnesium. We now know that trying to secure sleep through prescription drugs is deadly.