boxerLast week Dr. Oz hosted a show about “killer” sleeping pills.

Now, there are lots of reasons to be cautious about sleep meds, including the fact that some leave you feeling groggy in the morning. The FDA in January lowered the recommended dose of zolpidem (a.k.a. Ambien) from 10 mg. to 5 mg. for women, based on reports that women tend to metabolize the drug more slowly than men. The resulting morning grogginess can impair driving.

But when celebrities like Dr. Oz use information like this to whip up hysteria about sleeping pills, it makes my blood boil.

Consider the opener to the show.

“This is breaking news!,” Dr. Oz shouted. “There’s an alarming link between prescription sleep aids and an increased risk of cancer and death!”

“Women taking less than 18 pills had a 3½ times greater risk of increased mortality,” Dr. Michael Breus chimed in.

Oh really, doctors? Reports of the study you’re referring to first came out a full year ago. That study had serious limitations, including that the data did not show whether the increased mortality was in fact linked to the use of sleeping pills or rather to insomnia itself. Minor point.

There is nothing “breaking” about this news. But it’s a hell of an opener if your aim is to demonize sleeping pills.

Zolpidem’s Effect on Morning Driving

“Sleeping pills alter your state of consciousness,” said Dr. Breus, preparing us to understand the harm they do.

Well, duh. If I wanted to remain in a waking state all night, I’d play Monopoly and sip Kool-Aid.

“Alcohol moves out of your system faster than sleeping pills,” he added.

The statement is misleading, at best. Some sleeping pills have very short half-lives. (Take Sonata [zaleplon] with its half-life of one hour.) Others stick around in your body for many hours.

Like alcohol, sleeping pills can produce a “hangover” and cause traffic accidents, Breus said.

A Closer Look

Let’s look more closely at the comparison. The FDA has received about 700 reports of zolpidem-related driving incidents in all, according to The New York Times. Contrast this with the nearly 9,900 traffic fatalities attributable to alcohol in the year 2011 alone.

One sleeping pill-related driving incident is one too many, I think we’d all agree. But in withholding information about the scale of the problem, the doctors imply that the danger sleeping pills pose to driving is greater than it actually is.

Many sleep experts think sleeping pills are over-prescribed, and I do not doubt this claim. Prescriptions shouldn’t be tossed out like candy in cases where there are safer ways to get sound sleep.

But sleeping pills can be a godsend for people constitutionally predisposed to poor sleep. Dr. Oz’s show was not so much alarming as alarmist. It did nothing to promote thoughtful dialog on the safety and appropriate use of sleeping pills.

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

One Comment

  1. I should have known from his huckster-ish tv promos, but for some reason I thought he was just an egomaniac. Dr. Oz et al compound many medical errors by under- prescribing pain meds in post-operative patients, too. Of course we live in an over-prescribed culture, but this kind of headline grabbing scares careful docs and patients. Thanks for the corrective.

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