“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”

If you’re taking a prescription sleep aid, that might happen sooner than you think.

Dear Living Well Daily Reader,

The results are in!

Thank you to all who took our sleep survey. We now have a much better idea of what types of sleep problems you’re experiencing and how to help you get the best sleep you can.

One thing we noticed is that many of you have been so desperate for sleep that you’ve resorted to OTC or prescription sleep meds. A lot of you, in fact. I too have been so desperate for sleep that I’ve used sleep medications. Having suffered from insomnia for the past four years, I know exactly how you feel.

Many of you noted that you’d rather not use these meds and are wary of potential long-term effects of them.

And you have a right to be concerned.

A lot of things happen when you sleep, and one important thing is that your brain clears away beta-amyloid proteins. These proteins have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

So you definitely want to make sure you get enough sleep… but if you use a certain over-the-counter sleep medication, you could actually be raising your risk of dementia.

Researchers have found that diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl, Unisom, Unisom SleepGels, ZzzQuil, Sominex, Tylenol PM, and more, has been linked to a higher risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s in older adults. (And the acetaminophen in Tylenol PM carries its own slew of risks, which I point out in this article.)

The study authors tracked almost 3,500 adults over the age of 65 who had no dementia symptoms at the start of the seven-year study. They added up the average daily doses of certain medicines and then determined which ones correlated with the number of participants that developed dementia by the end of the study. (1)

According to lead study author Professor Shelly Gray of the University of Washington School of Pharmacy in Seattle, “The dose of diphenhydramine that would correspond to the highest-risk group is taking the equivalent of 50 mg each day for longer than three years — or 25 mg per day for longer than six years in duration.”

A single tab of Benadryl is 25mg, with the dose being one-two tabs. As many of you commented, your insomnia has been a chronic condition. If you’re using a diphenhydramine sleep aid, you could be setting yourself up for major brain decline as you age.

Exactly the opposite of what restful, refreshing sleep is supposed to do.

And if you’re taking a prescription sleep aid, there’s even more cause for concern.

A study out of the University of California, San Diego found that hypnotic sleep aids such as Ambien and Restoril “could be as risky as smoking cigarettes” in regard to increasing your risk of death or cancer. (2)

The study authors compared the medical records of 10,529 people who had been prescribed hypnotic sleep aids against the records of 23,676 matched patients who were never prescribed sleep aids.

They found that those who used the largest number of sleep aids had a 5.3-fold higher death risk compared with nonusers. They also had a 35% higher risk of cancer.

The researchers estimated that sleeping pills are linked to up to a staggering 507,000 deaths each year.

It’s prudent to point out that prospective studies such as these cannot determine that sleep aids directly caused the dementia or death. Also, study critics point out that people who use sleep aids long term may be less healthy to begin with, which could contribute to increased risk.

Regardless, there are very real known risks with sleep aid drugs.

They can cause you to sleepwalk, sleep-eat, or even have sex while sleeping. And there have been cases of sleep-driving as well.

Benzodiazepines aren’t off the hook, either. They’ve been linked to a higher risk of cognitive decline, long-term memory storage, and injurious falls in the elderly. (3)

Also, they may not be helping you sleep as much as you think. One study found that people taking “benzos” overestimated the amount of sleep they were getting by about 72 minutes compared with what the EEG recordings showed. Then when the benzos were withdrawn, the study participants thought they were getting about an hour less sleep compared with what they were actually getting, indicating a psychological dependence.

Pharmacological sleep aids are best avoided if possible. But if you do need them, they are only meant to be used short term. (Though in the study from UC, even as few as 18 doses per year increased the mortality risk.) Long-term use carries the most risks.

And if you’re a woman, it’s important to know that you are taking the lowest dose possible. Women metabolize sleep medications slower than men, and the FDA recommends women take half the dose.

All types of sleeping pills can be addictive and habit-forming, as well. And all sleep aids carry the risk of a psychological dependence if you convince yourself you can’t sleep without them. And if you do decide to quit them, you can experience rebound insomnia that’s even worse than the sleep trouble you had to begin with. (4)

If you are experiencing sleeplessness, it’s always best to try natural options first. Good sleep hygiene is a must. Stick to an established bedtime routine. Stop looking at screens at least an hour before bed. Make your room dark and cool.

And keep an eye on your inbox, because we’re not done with sleep yet. We’ve been working on something special to help you fall asleep easily and stay asleep. Stay tuned!

To sleeping well,

Jasmine LeMaster
Health Researcher

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