By now, I’m sure you’re well aware of just how dangerous sleep deprivation can be. And I don’t just mean behind the wheel.
Sure, daytime fatigue can make it hard to function. But sleep loss can lead to much bigger problems — many of which you might not expect. For instance, research shows that chronic sleep deprivation can pave the way to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer.
So it’s no wonder that people who struggle with insomnia — a condition that will sap your quality of life well before the worst damage is done — often resort to desperate measures in the quest for a decent night’s sleep.
And unfortunately, that introduces a whole new set of dangerous — even deadly — problems. Especially if prescription and over-the-counter drugs enter into the equation.
The fact is, we’re learning some pretty terrifying things about the side effects of popular sleep aids. So today, I want to tackle four dangers that you absolutely need to know about before you reach for that pill bottle in the middle of the night…
OTC sleep aids steal your memory — and shrink your brain
One of the scariest discoveries in recent years is the connection between popular sleep aids and dementia.
Anticholinergic drugs — think Benadryl, Unisom, and Tylenol PM — are marketed for both allergy management and better sleep. (Tricyclic antidepressants — like Elavil — also fall in this category of drugs.)
But a growing body of research shows those benefits come at a steep cost to your brain.
First, there was a 2013 study from Indiana University, showing that these drugs nearly tripled the risk of mild cognitive impairment in patients who took them continuously for as few as 60 days.1
A couple of years later, yet another study found that people over the age of 65 who take anticholinergics face increased risk of dementia. The study, done at the University of Washington in Seattle, examined data from 3,434 people age 65 and over who did not have dementia at the start of the study. During follow-up, which lasted about seven years, 23.2 percent of participants were diagnosed with dementia. (And about 80 percent of those were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.)
Researchers found the higher the dose of anticholergenic medication a patient took in the 10 years before the study, the greater the risk of dementia.2
And just this past spring, Indiana University researchers released yet another study. This one spared no expense. The researchers assessed the results of memory and cognitive tests, PET scans (in order to gauge brain metabolism) and MRI scans (to examine effects on brain structure).
Cognitive tests showed that subjects on anticholinergics also had impaired short term memory and executive functioning (which includes verbal reasoning and planning, as well as problem-solving.)
Results also found that study participants who used anticholinergics had lower brain glucose metabolism. Remember, your brain uses sugar for energy — particularly in the hippocampus. (This is the part of your brain associated memory, and the first part to be affected with Alzheimer’s disease.)
Subjects also suffered from brain shrinkage — yes, brain shrinkage — along with larger-than-normal cavities inside their brains.3
If that’s not a good reason to put down the sleeping pills, I don’t know what is. But we’re just getting started…
Two words: “Sleep eating”
Not to mention “sleep dialing,” “sleep sex” — even “sleep driving” and “sleep violence.” These are all activities people have engaged in under the influence of sleeping pills. And they wake up the next day with absolutely no memory of any of it.
Why? Because they were fast asleep. The whole time.
Officially, these occurrences are known as “complex sleep-related behaviors.” And they’re one of the more dangerous side effects of sedative-hypnotic drugs.
The category of medications may not sound familiar, but you’ve definitely heard of them. You may even be on one of them.
• Ambien, Ambien CR (zolpidem tartrate)
• Butisol sodium
• Carbrital (pentobarbital and carbromal)
• Dalmane (flurazepam hydrochloride) • Doral (quazepam)
• Halcion (triazolam)
• Lunesta (eszopiclone)
• Placidyl (ethchlorvynol)
• Prosom (estazolam)
• Restoril (temazepam)
• Rozerem (ramelteon)
• Seconal (secobarbital sodium)
• Sonata (zaleplon)
To say you have to be careful with these types of drugs would be the understatement of the century. Because in my professional opinion, no amount of sleep is worth the bizarre and unpredictable risks these drugs pose.
Incidence rates are higher among women (who generally metabolize drugs slower than men). Risk also rises with high doses of the drug — which you might think makes it easier to avoid.
But that’s another problem with this class of drugs. Your body quickly builds up a tolerance. Which means that the longer you take them, the more dependent you will become — requiring higher and higher doses to get the same effect. (Yes, just like a drug addict. Which is why they can be every bit as hard to kick.)
This, of course, paves the way to another serious safety issue with sleeping pills. Many of them depress your breathing while you sleep. Which can lead to death, should you take too many or combine them with alcohol or other sedatives.
Another problem I see in my patients who come to see me to get off these meds is daytime sleepiness. And it’s no surprise. Research shows that the active ingredients in these drugs can hang around in your body long enough to impair you in the morning — especially if you happen to be taking an extended-release version.
Obviously, that’s a recipe for disaster if you’re driving to work. But just getting out of bed can be dangerous on these drugs. Yet another study found that hospitalized patients using Ambien were more than four times more likely to fall — a risk that can be every bit as lethal, particularly for older patients.4
The bottom line? Most sleep meds are meant to be taken for a total of two weeks or less. And yet, most sleepless patients live on them.
A higher risk of both cancer and death
Considering how lethal sleep loss is, it seems ironic that sleep aids might also raise your risk of death. But according to a 2012 study published in the British Medical Journal, it’s also very true.
This study looked at data from more than 10,000 patients, with an average age of 54, who took sleeping pills — including benzodiazepines (like Restoril), sedative hypnotics (like Ambien) and sedative antihistamines (like Benadryl). And they compared it with data from more than 20,000 drug-free subjects. Their results were shocking, to say the least.
People who were prescribed up to 18 doses in a year — yes, that’s just 18 sleeping pills or fewer per year– were three and a half times more likely to die during the 2.5-year follow-up than those who were prescribed none.5
Patients prescribed more doses — up to 132 in a year — were four times more likely to die. And those who took more than that faced five times the risk of death.
But that’s not all.
These researchers also found that patients who took the most sleeping pills were also 35 percent more likely to develop cancer — particularly lymphoma, esophageal, lung, colon, and prostate cancer.
It doesn’t take a math whiz to see the horrific trend here. Even short periods of sleeping pill use can point to fatal outcomes. And the worst part of all this?
They don’t even work as well as you think
At least, not according research from the National Institutes of Health.6
So much for the benefits outweighing the risks. Especially since, while sleeping pills may only be marginally effective at improving sleep, they’re very effective at making your problem worse.
Ask anyone who’s ever tried to stop taking them. Especially if you’ve relied on sleeping pills for a long time, kicking the habit can trigger “rebound insomnia” — leaving you in worse shape sleep-wise than when you started.
As with any drug, quitting cold turkey can be a shock to your system. So if you’re ready to “get clean” — and I strongly urge you to do so, as soon as possible— it’s always wise to work with your doctor to wean yourself off them gradually.
In the meantime, I can’t stress enough just how important it is to get a handle on your sleep habits. In fact, this issue is so critical to your health and well being I’m developing an in-depth, step-by-step protocol that can help you get the quality sleep you need without dangerous medications. I’m putting the final touches on this protocol now, and will be sure to let you know as soon as it’s ready. So stay tuned!
 Cal X, et al. Alzheimers Dement. 2013 Jul;9(4):377-85.
 Gray SL, et al. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Mar;175(3):401-7.
 Risacher SL, et al. JAMA Neurol. 2016 Apr 18.
 Kolla BP, et al. J Hosp Med. 2013 Jan;8(1):1-6.
 Kripke DF, et al. BMJ Open. 2012 Feb 27;2(1):e000850.
 Saul, Stephanie. “Sleep drugs found only mildly effective, but wildly popular.” New York Times. 23 Oct. 2007.