A good sleep aid is hard to find. Just ask anyone with experience. Taking the wrong sleep aid pills can leave you feeling drowsy and may eventually lead to addiction. One study even found that people who take prescription sleep aids have a 35 percent increased risk of developing cancer than those who don’t (1).
If you’re looking to improve your sleep by taking a sleep aid, you should be aware of the pros and cons. The best sleep aid pills are sourced from natural ingredients with fewer side effects than prescription strength brands, but even those can be dangerous if they contain the wrong formula. Here’s what you need to know about the possible side effects of sleep aid pills and how to pick out a good one.
Insomnia plagues millions of people around the world each year. According to a Consumer Reports survey, approximately 37 percent of 4,023 adults who reported having trouble sleeping at least once a week have taken an over-the-counter sleep aid within the past year (2). It’s not hard to see why so many people would want to take a sleep aid pill. After all, the Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of prescription sleep aids as a way to treat insomnia, so they must be safe, right?
The answer isn’t so black and white. Prescription sleep aids come with a wide variety of side effects that many people aren’t aware of. Additionally, sleep aids are easy to abuse or become dependent on. The Consumer Reports survey found that individuals who took prescription sleep aids consumed more than recommended, stayed on them longer than they should have, or mixed them with other supplements and medications (2). Abusing sleep aids in this manner can double your side effects.
Although sleep loss has many negative impacts on your daily life, taking a prescription sleep aid may not be the answer. According to one study, sleeping pills were associated with an increased risk of death (1). The study even found that people who took a prescription sleeping pill had a greater risk of developing colon, prostate, lung or lymphoma cancer than someone who smokes (1). Unsurprisingly, the study noted that users of sleep aid drugs weren’t informed about these risks on the drug’s label (1).
Researchers of the study investigated the effects of popular sleeping pills such as Ambien and Restoril and their effects on health conditions such as asthma, kidney disease, diabetes, obesity, reflux and heart disease. Results showed that people with these medical conditions who took as few as 1 to 18 prescription sleep aid pills a year were 3.6 times more likely to die than people who didn’t take a prescription sleep aid (1).
The risks of dying increased as the subjects took more sleep pills. The study found that people who took between 18 and 132 pills a year were four times more likely to die by the time the study was done (1). Finally, people who took more than 132 pills or more each year were five times more likely to die (1).
As if the increased risk of death wasn’t scary enough, there is evidence to show that prescription sleep aids aren’t even that useful. According to one report, people who took the sleep drug Belsomra every night for three months only gained 16 minutes of sleep each night and fell asleep six minutes faster than individuals who received a placebo (2). The subjects who took Belsomra also reported feeling drowsy the next day instead of refreshed (2).
Most people take sleep pills with the intention of feeling better the next day, but research shows that prescription sleeping pills may do the opposite. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health determined that subjects who were prescribed sleeping pills were twice as likely to get into a car accident (2). Researchers of the study concluded that driving while taking prescription sleep pills makes you as reliable as a person driving under the influence of alcohol.
To accommodate for these statistics, many drug companies advise that their consumers take only half of the recommended dose. Some companies such as Ambien CR and Belsomra even suggest that people who use their product avoid driving the day after taking one of their pills (2). The side effects of prescription sleep aids don’t just make you a hazard on the road. They also have serious effects on your health. Here is a list of popular prescription sleep aids and their side effects:
Benzodiazepines are one of the most commonly prescribed sleep medications in the United States. They are particularly prevalent among elderly patients with anxiety and insomnia. Benzodiazepines work by increasing a neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for reducing stress and anxiety called gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA (3).
Benzodiazepines became popular in the 1960’s when they were commonly prescribed to treat housewives with anxiety (2). Examples of benzodiazepines that are used to treat insomnia include flurazepam, temazepam, and estazolam. Side effects include dependence, confusion, and grogginess (2).
Nonbenzodiazepines, also known as Z-drugs, are used to treat insomnia and anxiety. Common brand names examples include Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta. When they first came out, medical professionals had high hopes that they wouldn’t cause drowsiness the next day as benzodiazepines do, but even the Food and Drug Administration says they may still do that. They may even cause rare yet terrifying side effects such as sleep eating and sleep driving (2).
Belsomra is a newer prescription sleep aid designed to enhance a neuropeptide that is responsible for regulating wakefulness called orexin. Despite being a relatively new drug on the market, Belsomra may cause sleep paralysis in which you are fully awake but unable to move your body (2).
Trazodone is a prescription drug that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for depression, but it is often prescribed for insomnia. Side effects may include drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, headaches, muscle pain, constipation, a stuffy nose, and a bad taste in your mouth (4). Experts recommend avoiding this product for insomnia unless you also suffer from depression (2).
Even though they don’t require a prescription, over-the-counter drugs may seem like a tempting option. But they aren’t completely safe. Research shows that over-the-counter sleep aids might be more dangerous than prescription sleep aids because the active ingredients that are present in sleep aids are also found in pain relievers. The combination of a sleep aid and a pain killer in one pill could be deadly in some cases. Because you don’t need a prescription to buy them, it’s also easier to take more than you should.
In some cases, antidepressants are prescribed for insomnia in much lower doses even though they aren’t intended to treat sleep disorders. Because there is a strong link between insomnia and depression, some doctors believe antidepressants can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.
According to a 2008 study, sleep disorders are the primary symptoms of depression (5). The study stated that approximately 75 percent of patients with depression also have insomnia. About 40 percent of young adults and 10 percent of older female adults have hypersomnia (5). These symptoms may significantly impact a person’s quality of life. It also increases the risk of suicide (5).
Drugs that are commonly used to treat insomnia and depression include (6):
Side effects of these medications may include the following (6):
Also, antidepressants may increase the risk of falling in older adults. They may also increase the possibility of dependency, high blood pressure, seizures, and kidney disease (6). On the other hand, there is plenty of research to support using natural ingredients to treat depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
Good sleep aid pills aren’t impossible to find, but you may not have much luck with a prescription sleep aid or an antidepressant. Most people find that natural sleep aids are less likely to cause side effects or dependency. Some research even shows that natural remedies such as herbs and other plant compounds are just as effective as prescription medications. Here are the top three natural ingredients to look for when picking out a natural sleep aid.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland of the brain that is responsible for regulating your circadian rhythm, or your body’s natural sleep cycle. It dictates when you become tired enough to fall asleep and when you’ve had enough sleep to wake up naturally. When your brain senses that it’s dark at night, it stimulates the production of melatonin and releases it into the bloodstream to make you sleepy. But when it detects light, melatonin production stops.
Light is the most influential factor over your melatonin levels. Furthermore, your brain isn’t picky as to what type of light causes your melatonin production to stop. In other words, natural sunlight isn’t the only type of light that tells you to wake up. Light emitted from the television screen or another electronic device, such as your phone, can tell your brain to stop making melatonin.
In addition to making your room dark and turning off the electronics at night, taking a melatonin supplement may be able to reset your circadian rhythm by making you feel sleepy at night when it’s time to rest. According to a 2012 study, published in Drugs & Aging, subjects with insomnia who took melatonin two hours before bedtime improved their sleep length and quality. They also reported feeling more alert the next day and were more satisfied with their overall quality of life as a result of sleeping better (7).
Valerian root extract is a natural remedy for insomnia and anxiety. One study found that 44 percent of people who took valerian root for their insomnia reported having a perfect sleep. Another 89 percent of the valerian root users experienced improved sleep. The study also found that no side effects were reported in the group that took valerian root (8).
Valerian root works similar to many prescription drugs such as Xanax and Valium by boosting GABA, but without the side effects (9). Valerian root has also been shown to lower blood pressure, ease menstrual cramping, and decrease stress levels. According to a 2014 study, valerian root altered certain parts of the brain such as the hippocampus and amygdala to suppress psychological and physical stress (10).
L-tryptophan is an amino acid needed to produce the hormones melatonin and serotonin, which plays a significant role in mood, cognition, and behavior. Because you can’t supplement with serotonin itself, taking l-tryptophan is the next best thing. Taking it with melatonin may help improve your sleep because melatonin makes you sleepy while l-tryptophan reduces anxiety.
According to a 2009 study, l-tryptophan has a leg up on other sleep aid treatments because it does not cause cognitive impairments as some prescription drugs do. It has also been shown to improve depression, anxiety, and aggressive behavior (11). An animal study found that mice who were tryptophan deficiency had increased levels of aggression. Tryptophan deficiency is also linked to impairment of memory retrieval, cognitive flexibility, and stimulus-reward learning (11).
Sleep aid pills can be used in combination with other natural remedies to help improve your sleep. For example, developing a bedtime routine that includes meditation or another relaxation technique right before bed is a good way to reduce anxiety. Make breakfast your largest meal of the day and keep it light at night. Try to have your last cup of coffee in the early afternoon, so it passes through your system before bed. It’s never a good idea to drink alcohol while taking a sleeping pill.
Lastly, make your room as dark as possible to stimulate the production of melatonin. You may even want to invest in a white noise machine or blackout curtains to further enhance your sleep space.