Sleeping Pills? A Chill Wind Blows

Like your sleeping pills? You’re not alone. About 8.6 million Americans now use prescription sleep aids, according to the CDC.

Yet as they grow more popular, I sense a move afoot to restrict their use.

HailLike your sleeping pills? You’re not alone. About 8.6 million Americans now use prescription sleep aids, according to the CDC. Yet as they grow more popular, I sense a move afoot to restrict their use.

“Americans,” CNN’s Kate Bolduan announced a few days ago, “are popping sleeping pills at an eye-opening, eye-popping rate!”

“It’s an epidemic!” Dr. Carol Ash on the Today show said. “Doctors are still filling out prescriptions like candy and not getting at the root cause!”

Maybe coverage like this—and the negatives that have surfaced about Ambien in recent years—can explain why, when I asked for a renewal of my prescription during my routine physical a few days ago, my doctor gave me the third-degree.

Hadn’t I heard about all the recent information coming out about the negative effects of Ambien? she asked. Terrible news was coming out about Ambien and other sleeping pills every day. Shouldn’t we think about another drug instead? At the very least she was going to reduce my dosage—now that doctors were coming under closer scrutiny for prescribing it.

The Dirt on Ambien

I knew the information my doctor was referring to.

  • The recommended dosage of Ambien has for women been cut in half based on tests showing that in 10 to 15 percent of women, the drug causes morning drowsiness.
  • The number of people landing in the emergency room after taking Ambien increased by nearly 220 percent between 2005 and 2010.
  • Some studies, including a recent study based in Taiwan, have linked the use of Ambien and other sleeping pills to an increased risk of mortality.

As presented in recent news reports (where creating alarm—rather than fair and balanced coverage—seems to be the order of the day), Ambien sounds like a badass drug in a whole class of bad drugs. In this kind of climate, it’s no wonder PCPs are leery of prescribing Ambien and other similar hypnotics. If NBC or CNN were your main news source, why wouldn’t you think twice about refilling patient prescriptions?

A Little Bit of Push Back

First, to conclude that Ambien is worse than other hypnotics based on tests conducted and statistics compiled in the past few years simply is not justified. Ambien is the bête noir of hypnotics today only because—due to its great popularity—it has undergone the lion’s share of post-marketing tests. If similar drugs were tested in all the same ways, they, too, would probably emerge showing a raft of nasty side effects in some users.

Second, just because some users experience side effects—and others abuse these drugs—does not mean they should suddenly become off-limits to those who use them judiciously and whose sleep improves as a result.

With sleeping pills, wrote a user in response to a negative article about sleeping pills in Huffington Post, “I can sleep. I don’t awake drowsy. I have no trouble thinking or functioning in my work environment or any other environment. . . . I don’t drink or smoke and did both in my younger days. So I get really tired of professionals using generalities to try and control my choices.”

My thoughts exactly.

I wish journalists were willing to go the extra mile to include more than one point of view in their stories about sleeping pills—and that primary care physicians knew more about hypnotics than comes out in the report du jour on CNN.

If you’ve used sleeping pills, please weigh in. How have they helped? What side effects have you experienced? 

Author: 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.

4 thoughts on “Sleeping Pills? A Chill Wind Blows”

  1. I’ve been using Ambien for over a year. it’s the first sleeping aid I’ve used that allows me to wake up refreshed. I’ve been trying to cut down the dose for about three weeks as a result of the recent warnings and I’m back to my pre-sleeping aid problem of waking up for good between 3 and 3:30. Not enough sleep for me. I think if you wake up drowsy or have health problems from it, just don’t take it. As for me, I’d like to have the choice. That’s a pretty old fashioned word, however, “choice.”


  2. Thanks for sharing your experience. Especially now that the safety of Ambien & other sleeping pills is being questioned, it’s important to hear from people who use them responsibly and whose lives are better as a result.

    I hate to think the choices of the many are going to be restricted now because of the negative experiences of the few. But that has happened with prescription hypnotics time and time again.

    “We see all the failures,” said the renowned sleep scientist Peter Hauri some 30 years ago. “We don’t see the thousands of people who take the standard 50 milligrams of Dalmane [an older sleeping pill], or 100 milligrams of Seconal [an even older sleeping pill], or whatever, are satisfied with the pills, and live to be a ripe old age.”

    We who use sleeping pills responsibly need to speak up and out.


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