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May 26, 2022
9 Sleeping Pills That Wreck Your Health (and what to turn to instead)
Did you know that the older you get, the harder it is to sleep?
As you age, you’re more likely to wake up in the middle of the night, toss and turn, and struggle to get more than 7 hours of sleep (1, 2).
This might prompt you to consider sleeping pills…but stop right there.
New research has revealed that sleep aids come with serious dangers that are even worse than previously thought.
They can ruin your health, and even risk the life of you and your loved ones.
And on top of all that, they barely even work…
The Shocking Dangers of Sleeping Pills
Most of us know that sleeping pills aren’t an ideal way to get more rest.
Maybe you’ve heard they can make you drowsy in the daytime. Or maybe you have a friend who started talking in her sleep after taking them.
And sure, sometimes the only side effects of sleeping pills are annoying but manageable quirks like the above.
But for some people, that’s not where it stops. Sleeping pills can do much deeper damage.
According to a shocking 2015 study, some sleeping pills, like Ambien, Desyrel, and Restoril, could double a person’s risk of being in a car accident—even after the timeframe when the medication’s effects should have worn off (3). In fact, the risk may be as strong as the risk of driving drunk.
The study took a look at the medical records and driving records of participants over a five-year period and found that people who took any of those three sleep aids had between a 25% and 300% higher risk of getting into a car accident in that timeframe (3). Those on Restoril had a 27% higher risk, those on Desyrel had a 91% higher risk, and Ambien users’ risk more than doubled.
These risk levels are comparable to a blood alcohol level between .06% and .11%. To paint a better picture: .08% is the legal limit in the US. The cautiously optimistic news is that this risk level wears off as time goes on, though researchers aren’t sure if that’s because people get used to the side effects or find ways to compensate for them.
One of the more alarming aspects of these findings is the notion that the medications can sometimes stay in a person’s bloodstream longer than expected…
Many users may be following the medication’s instructions where they sleep 7 to 8 hours, wake up assuming the meds are out of their system, and then go about their morning commute unknowingly putting themselves and others at risk.
A few years before the 2015 study was published, the FDA was already seeing red flags. The agency told drug manufacturers to reduce the recommended sleep aid doses so people would be able to drive safely in the mornings. In addition to this, they also advised doctors to prescribe the lowest possible doses (4).
These recommendations are especially important for women, whose bodies sometimes process drugs more slowly than men.
But according to a 2018 study, many doctors neglected to reduce doses, with as many as two-thirds of women and seniors taking high doses (5).
Sleep aids also come with a slew of other health concerns, including increased risks of falls, daytime exhaustion, abnormal behavior, potentially life-threatening interactions with other drugs or substances, and doing activities in your sleep that you don’t remember the next day.
Many prescription sleep aids have what are called black box warnings, the most serious FDA warnings for medications and medical devices that alert consumers about the risk of serious or life-threatening side effects (6).
There’s also the risk of taking sleep aids incorrectly…
Even if you’re diligent about following medication instructions, sleep aids come with so many restrictions that it’s easy to unintentionally break one. Some of the biggest dangers are combining sleeping pills with alcohol or other sedative medications, or taking them when you have less than 7 to 8 hours to devote to sleeping.
Sleeping Pills Aren’t Very Effective
On top of all the dangers, the positive effects of sleeping pills are limited.
According to recent research, prescription sleep medications may not be effective for women who take them longer than 1 year (7). In fact, research has found no difference in sleep quality between those who took sleep aids for 1 to 2 years and those who didn’t, and there is little certainty about the long-term efficacy of these medications (8, 9).
9 Sleeping Pills that Can be Harmful to Your Health
With all that in mind, here are just some of the sleeping pills that can be harmful to your health…
1. Zolpidem (like Ambien, Intermezzo, Edluar, or Zolpimist)
In the 2015 car accident study, Zolpidem use was found to be linked to the highest risk of car accidents compared to the other medications studied (3). It’s also linked to other dangerous side effects, like doing activities while you’re asleep that you have no memory of, hallucinations, and symptoms of depression (10).
2. Trazodone (like Desyrel or Oleptro)
Trazodone is primarily an antidepressant, but many doctors prescribe it as a sleep aid as well. Like Zolpidem, Trazodone is associated with a higher risk of car accidents, even after the timeframe that the medication is supposed to have worn off (3). Other harmful side effects include depression, suicidal thoughts, dizziness, low blood pressure, and serotonin syndrome, an interaction that creates dangerous levels of serotonin in the body.
3. Temazepam (like Restoril)
Temazepam is associated with mental health risks, including an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, especially in young people, and abnormal behaviors that don’t fit with your typical personality. There’s also a high risk of addiction and unhealthy withdrawal reactions, and of course, Temazepam was also one of the medications linked in the study to car accident risk (3).
4. Triazolam (like Halcion)
Triazolam is a benzodiazepine, a type of drug that works by increasing the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain to create a calming effect. Benzodiazepines take effect very quickly, which can be helpful in the short term, but they’re not recommended for regular use. Adults over 65 are at especially high risk of benzodiazepine side effects, like memory problems and falls. In fact, the College of Psychiatric and Neurologic Pharmacists recommends that people over 55 avoid them altogether (11).
5. Eszopiclone (like Lunesta)
Eszopiclone comes with a risk of dependence and withdrawal symptoms. It’s also been associated with feelings of extreme sleepiness during the day, negating the reason you would want to take them in the first place! Like many other sleep aids, this medication comes with the chilling risk of doing an activity while you’re asleep that you don’t remember, as well as uncharacteristic behaviors.
6. Zaleplon (like Sonata)
Zaleplon is part of a class of medications called hypnotics, which means it slows the activity in your brain to encourage sleep. Zaleplon has been linked to sleep-driving, which, terrifyingly enough, is exactly what it sounds like: Driving your car while you’re asleep (12). When you wake up, you may have no memory of doing this. Needless to say, this behavior can be very dangerous or life-threatening.
7. Ramelteon (like Rozerem)
Ramelteon works by mimicking melatonin (we recommend opting for actual melatonin instead, but more on that in a bit). Ramelteon poses a risk for anyone with pre-existing liver disease, and many people experience daytime exhaustion and dizziness while taking it (13). Other side effects include mood changes, suicidal thoughts, and disruption of your menstrual cycle if you are pre-menopause.
8. Suvorexant (like Belsomra)
Suvorexant is a dual orexin receptor antagonist (DORA), a relatively new class of sleep aid. DORAs work by blocking signals in the brain that make you feel awake. They are believed to be less addictive than other prescription sleep aids, but they still come with drawbacks (14). DORAs are associated with the risk of depression, suicidal thoughts, hallucination, sleepwalking, and sleep paralysis.
9. Antihistamines (like Benadryl or Zyrtec)
Antihistamine sleep aids are deceptive. At first, they might seem safer, because they’re over-the-counter medications. But the reality is that they’re recommended for long-term sleep use, and aren’t very effective (15).
The first time you try them, they might work quite well. But soon enough, you’ll notice less and less of their effects (16). Antihistamines also have a knack for lingering in your body longer than you need them, creating a groggy effect the next day (17).
When used for sleep long-term, antihistamines inhibit an important neurotransmitter, potentially putting you at higher risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (18). The longer you take them, the more that risk may increase over time.
What to Do If You Can’t Sleep: Natural Ingredients to Try
If you’re struggling to get some sleep, simple habit changes like a consistent bedtime and daily exercise may help more than you expect. That said, there are also several natural ingredients that can help you sleep better and live healthier—without the terrifying side effects.
GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps quiet down your brain and serves a major role in your sleep cycle (19). Many sleeping pills work by increasing GABA in your brain, so why not go straight to the source by taking a GABA supplement to increase GABA naturally?
Melatonin regulates your circadian rhythm, also known as your internal clock (12). Known as the “sleep hormone,” melatonin has many positive effects on sleep and helps communicate to your body that it’s time for bed (20, 21).
L-Theanine is an amino acid. Research has found a connection between L-theanine and sleep-related brain chemicals like serotonin, cortisol, and dopamine (22). L-theanine can help you relax, fall asleep more quickly, and hit the deep cycle of sleep that helps ward off aging (23).
This powerful mineral helps manage your circadian rhythm and regulates GABA along with other sleep-related brain chemicals (24). Supplementing with magnesium is a great way to improve a night’s sleep.
Collagen is more than just the most abundant protein in your body (as if that weren’t enough) (25). This protein is also full of glycine, an amino acid that helps you sleep by soothing the central nervous system (26). If you drink collagen before sleep, you can plan on a deeper, more rejuvenating rest.
The Bottom Line
When you’re exhausted and at the end of your rope, sleeping pills are like a mirage across the desert.
They seem so promising, but in reality, they’re likely to just make your health worse, and their shocking dangers are impossible to ignore.
If you’re looking to boost your sleep naturally, lean on ingredients like GABA, melatonin, L-theanine, magnesium, and collagen to help promote safe, healthy rest.
You may even want to combine all those ingredients at once—something you can do easily with NativePath Collagen PM. We make it effortless by blending 10 grams of collagen, 2 grams of GABA, 200 milligrams of L-theanine, 10 milligrams of magnesium, and 5 milligrams of melatonin. Every delicious scoop is a ticket to deep, rejuvenating, restorative sleep.
As a writer, editor, and wellness seeker, Claire has written for Self, Health, Prevention, CNN, Mic, Livestrong, and Greatist, just to name a few. When she's not writing, she specializes in traveling, getting lost in health-related research rabbit holes, and finding new ways to spoil her cat.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.