We just tallied the results of our unscientific but nevertheless insightful poll on the sleep problems at SecondLivesClub.com. The conclusion: we are a very, very tired demographic. And now we learn this week from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that sleeping pills present more risks than rewards. They went online with a study that concluded patients using prescription sleep aids on a regular basis were nearly five times as likely to die over a period of two and a half years than non-users. Those using drugs periodically were at some risk too but heavy pill takers were even more likely to develop cancer. Yikes!
To be clear the research that comes out of the Viterbi Family Sleep Center at the Scripps Clinic in San Diego does not prove that the medications were the exact cause of these risks but that at the very least there’s a correlation between the two. Patients with sleep problems tend to have other health issues, such as cancer, heart disease, depression, to begin with or may develop them as a result of sleeplessness.
The study involved the use of benzodiazepine and barbiturate drugs and the more popular non-benzodiazepines, such as Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata. I’m often faced with the quandary at 2:30 in the morning whether to give in and take a pill and risk feeling groggy the next morning or to continue plumping my pillows and pretend sleep is imminent. I guess this study will help with that dilemma.
Benadryl….I can do. It’ll work on my sinuses too. It’s also the PM component of Tylenol PM and other sedative antihistamines that several friends swear by. But then I read about the danger of anticholinergic drugs, which antihistamines as well as many other popular painkillers and antidepressants are classified as. The cumulative effect can be cognitive impairment and memory loss and heavy users had an increased death rate in a recent study conducted by the Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia in England. Oh no!
You can’t avoid some of these medications but you can be sure to make your doctor aware of all that you are or have been taking so that you don’t experience an anticholinergic overload. And they probably shouldn’t be prescribed to older patients who have likely been taking them regularly for many years already. If you would like to know which drugs fall under this classification (and sometimes ignorance is bliss), you can acquaint yourself with the Anticholinergic Burden Scale here. A score of three is the most serious.
So now where are we? Drugs are not bad unto themselves. It’s the frequency with which we take them and how we balance the variety of medicines that are now available for whatever ails us. But sleeplessness can be chronic. Maybe we should take those healthy sleep habit tips (no daytime napping, darkened room, etc.) we’ve often skimmed past more seriously? Learn from our rare friends who sleep like a baby? My 94 year old aunt told me at lunch recently that the only time she remembers not being able to sleep was when she was a toddler. Her mother made her a cup of Ovaltine and tucked her in. Hm. Could be the Ovaltine that worked. Or just maybe it’s the being tucked in we all miss?