What You Need to Know If You Take Sleeping Pills Every Night

Sleep deprivation is a monster that no one wants to welcome, as it tends to make people cranky, foggy-brained, jittery, or just plain fatigued. To beat it, some prefer to use a sleep aid that can help with dozing off.

You can drink tea, warm milk, or wine. You can listen to sounds of the ocean or relaxing music too. But when nothing seems to work, people often turn to sleeping pills. While they can help you drift off and stay in the dream state until morning, experts are warning that using them for too long can have negative side effects.

Both over-the-counter and prescription sleep medications have been studied for their impact on the body and brain. With OTC pills, there are particular concerns about diphenhydramine, a chemical (antihistamine) and a common ingredient in Benadryl, Tylenol PM, and other meds that blocks the paths of the brain that keep us awake and alert.

To that end, it does its job as a sedative. On the other hand, older adults (age 65 and up) who take these pills for a prolonged period of time experience side effects such as dizziness, confusion, and physical impairment (like falls). It is also suspected that these medications can increase the risk of dementia by up to 50%.

Some of the other side effects include constipation, blurry vision, dry mouth, and urinary retention. Time magazine cites a hypothetical example of a man with prostate issues who is unable to completely pass his urine due to a sleep medication. Not realizing it’s the culprit, his doctor may address the problem with a prescription for the bladder or prostate.

Multiple studies have been done – and continue to be done – on the extended use of sleeping pills, but alarming research published in the BMJ in 2012 showed that people who took sleeping pills often – roughly every few days – increased their cancer risk by 35%.

That’s not all. The study, which examined the information of more than 30,000 adult participants ages 18 to 55, also concluded that those who take hypnotics (sleeping pills) increased their death rate by four or five-fold. Researchers emphasized that this was true even for those who took less than 18 pills per year.

What’s the solution? For one, the American Geriatric Association advises seniors to avoid sleeping pills at all costs. Health experts recommend exercise, relaxation therapy, or cognitive therapy for adults who are dealing with insomnia.

Realizing how many people are affected by insomnia and the use of sleeping pills, doctors are speaking out. Check out this video from Buzz60 to hear what researchers in Arizona have to say about taking hypnotics.

If you have health concerns about the long-term use of sleeping pills for you or a loved one, speak with a physician about possible alternatives. It is also a good idea to go over any side effects you’re experiencing!

Do you consume sleeping pills regularly? Are you an older adult who takes them but is considering an end to the pills? What alternatives to pills do you use to combat insomnia?


Harvard Medical School