The Risks of Taking Sleeping Pills

Many drugs are available to treat insomnia, but their side effects can be risky. Find out about the dangers of sleeping pills.

On the surface, prescription sleep aids can seem like the perfect cure for insomnia: Take a pill, and a few minutes later you slip into a restful sleep. Though they do have legitimate uses, sleeping pills also come with significant risks and side effects, which many people don’t realize, says Marc Leavey, MD, a doctor of internal medicine at MD Mercy Hospital in Baltimore. “They’re fairly safe and well-tolerated,” Dr. Leavey says. “But when you use them improperly, you can have problems.” Before you turn to medication to help you sleep, read up on these possible problems with sleeping pills.

You Can Quickly Build Up a Tolerance

When you take prescription sleeping pills over a long period of time, your body grows accustomed to the drug, and you need higher and higher doses to get the same sleep-inducing effect. But, if you take a high enough dose, this could lead to depressed breathing while you sleep, which can cause death. To minimize your risk for this side effect, don’t take sleeping pills for longer than a week or two. “If you have a short-term sleep disorder — a need to re-establish normal sleep patterns — that’s a clear reason to use these medications,” Leavey says. “You can have problems when you use them longer than 7 to 10 days.”

Drowsy Driving

New data has revealed that people who take certain forms of the sleeping pill zolpidem (Ambien) may still have enough of the drug in their bodies in the morning to impair activities like driving. Women and people who take extended-release forms of the drug are particularly at risk. For this reason, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required drug makers to lower the recommended dose for women and to suggest that doctors lower the dose for men. “[The drug’s effects] can really carry over into the daytime,” Leavey says. To avoid next-day drowsiness, follow your doctor’s dosing instructions, and don’t take sleeping pills like Ambien unless you have at least seven hours to devote to sleep.

Erratic Behavior Side Effects

We’ve all been known to do strange things in our sleep, but prescription sleeping pills, particularly benzodiazepines such as triazolam, have been known to cause side effects like sleepwalking and amnesia. “You’ll wake up, and you won’t know where you are,” Leavey says. This has also been seen in people who have taken the newer sleep aids like Ambien. If you (or your significant other) notice evidence of strange behavior while you’re taking sleeping pills, report these problems with sleeping pills to your doctor promptly.

Falling Down

Hospital patients who took zolpidem were four times more likely to fall than those who did not take the drug during their hospital stay, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine. “Falling is absolutely a problem,” Leavey says. “Your entire body is balanced on two little feet. You have sensors on your feet that constantly measure your center of gravity and where you are. If I give you a drug that dulls that system, you’ll fall down.” Older patients are particularly at risk for this problem with sleeping pills, he adds.

Cancer and Death

People who took prescription sleeping pills were more likely to die or get cancer than those who did not take them, according to a 2012 study published in BMJ Open. Though the results are concerning, they don’t necessarily mean that these drugs definitely cause negative side effects. “I would really want to see more evidence on that one,” Leavey says. The study’s authors suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of treatment that helps you change your thinking patterns, could be a better treatment for chronic insomnia than drugs.

You May Have Trouble Weaning Off Sleeping Pills

Once you begin taking sleeping pills, it can be hard to stop, particularly if you’ve been taking them for a long time. Some people experience “rebound insomnia” — when sleeping problems actually worsen once you stop taking the drug. If you want to go off your sleeping pills, talk to your doctor about setting up a schedule to gradually reduce your dosage, rather than just quitting cold turkey. “It may be rough coming off, but things will eventually get better,” Leavey says.

Jennifer Acosta Scott