Healthy Beginnings

The Untold Truth About Sleeping Pills: Risks and Treatment Options


Poor sleep, or chronic insomnia, which affects 20-30% of Americans, is a rampant problem, with more Americans turning to prescription sleeping pills than ever before. Physicians often recommend a minimum of 7 hours of sleep on a regular basis for good health, but a new study is challenging this notion[1]. According to the study, the sleep habits of remote hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, Namibia and Bolivia, whose sleep patterns are believed to reflect those of ancient humans, showed that they slept around 6.5 hours, sometimes less, per night without daily naps. Even though they were sleeping less than the recommended number, the hunter-gatherers in the study were relatively healthy with minimal sleep problems. This obviously challenges the idea that it may be unhealthy for us to sleep less than 7 hours.

Pharmaceutical companies continually report exponential growth in the number of sleep aid prescriptions filled each year, such as Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata and Restoril. The concern is not only the fact that sleep aids have side effects such as memory loss, drowsiness, dizziness and loss of coordination and balance (especially in elderly), but in some cases they may only work slightly better than a placebo or pill with no active drug. For example, Ambien and Lunesta have been shown to help people fall asleep only about 20 minutes and 19 minutes faster, respectively, than a placebo and only add 3-34 minutes to total sleep time[2].The newest sleep drug on the market, Belsomra, helped people fall asleep just 6 minutes faster on average, and sleep only 16 minutes longer than those who got a placebo2. Their effectiveness is so limited that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) no longer considers them a first-choice treatment. Instead, the AASM considers the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) as the leading treatment. CBT-I is a non-medication approach that goes beyond general sleep hygiene such as avoiding alcohol, not watching television in bed, etc., and addresses the key behaviors and thoughts that can interfere with sleep. Research has shown that the use of CBT-I has equal or greater effectiveness when compared to medications in the short term, but over time CBT-I has been shown to be more effective and a much healthier treatment. As such, people often no longer need medications following treatment, thereby eliminating all potential drug side effects.

Sleeping aids should generally be used for short-term use (few weeks), but people are often using them for years, thus becoming dependent on them and increasing their risk of other health problems. Growing research is showing that people taking sleeping aids for long periods of time may have an increased risk of developing cancer, and are far more likely to die prematurely than those who don’t take sleep aids[3]. Furthermore, there are alarming concerns for certain sleep medications called benzodiazepines (Ativan, Xanax, Valium and Klonopin), which are associated with higher rates of emergency room visits due to falls, fractures, auto accidents and also higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease[4]. Often people aren’t told about these risk factors from their physicians, and as a result they are generally unaware of the long-term risks. Given these increasing risk factors, I’m concerned for the future of sleep treatment if we continue to prescribe at such alarming rates. Rather, my hope is that we can help educate people more about the risks of sleep medications, and provide them better options such as CBT-I. In reality, it is sleep quality that is important, not sleep quantity and resorting to sleeping aids.

For more information, contact Ruth Gentry at 10631 Professional Circle in Reno, or at See ad on page …


  1. Gandhi Yetish, et. al (2015). Natural Sleep and its Seasonal Variations in Three Pre-Industrial Societies. Current Biology, Volume 25, Issue 21, p2862-p2868.
  2. The Truth About Sleeping Pills. What’s Safe, what Isn’t and how to get a good nights sleep (March 2015).
  3. Kripke, M.D. et; al. (2012). Hypnotics’ association with mortality or cancer: a matched cohort study BMJ Open 2012;2:e000850. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-000850
  1. Billlioti de Gage, et; al. (2014). Benzodiazepine use and risk of Alzheimer’s disease: case control study. BMJ2014;349:g5205.