By the time I entered private practice in internal medicine during the mid-1980s, sleeping pills were permanently installed in the pharmaceutical arsenal.
During the decade I practiced conventional medicine, I witnessed their rapid rise as the most frequently prescribed pills by traditional doctors. Patients’ frequent complaints of sleep problems fostered an explosion in the development of sleeping medications.
When I was a practicing internist, I would see as many as 30 patients a day and write at least as many prescriptions for sleeping pills and other psychotropic medications in a usually futile attempt to help patients sleep.
In the 1990s, when advertising drugs directly to consumers became legal, pharmaceutical companies spent millions promising to deliver the golden ring of a good night’s sleep, which seemed to evade our entire nation.
Never mind that you could not operate heavy machinery while taking these brain-altering pills, or could be found sleepwalking in your neighbor’s apartment.
Forget the fact that they could be addictive. Those consequences were quickly mentioned at the end of the promotional ad the drug companies hoped you overlooked.
Instead, they wanted you to go to your doctor and ask specifically for the advertised medication.
In 2012, more than 60 million for sleeping pills were written in the U.S. That does not include antidepressants and medications for anxiety, irritability, psychosis, and other mental states that also sedate you and thus often are prescribed to help people sleep.
Adding those prescriptions would make a total of more than 1 million prescriptions a year being written to help people get more shut-eye.
Research consistently demonstrates that taking sleeping pills is not a healthy way to get those much-needed seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
In fact, the more sleeping pills people take, the more likely they are to become addicted and the less likely they are to get a good night’s sleep.
Also, the more sleeping medications taken, the more likely the occurrence of dangerous side effects, including problems with mental acuity, harmful interactions with other drugs, and even death.
Some of the more popular sleeping pills may be seriously dangerous, research suggests.
A 2012 study in the “British Medical Journal” raised the issue of increased risk of death and cancer in people who take sleeping pills.
There also are many studies that fail to make those connections, but physicians have always scared patients into fearing addiction to sleeping pills rather than raise the issue of dangers associated with lack of sleep and work to find successful alternatives.
Too many people rely on sleeping pills for all the wrong reasons.
When you don’t get sleep because you are up all night working or partying, a change in lifestyle is in order, not a drug prescription. If you are stressed, work night shifts, or suffer jet lag from frequent traveling, sleeping pills rarely will help. I have many patients who often travel across time zones.
Some of them swear that taking a sleeping pill as they get on the plane helps prevent jet lag, and some only use sleeping pills when they travel.
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