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The Very Real Dangers of Taking Sleeping Pills


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10.24.2017 | Jennifer Bargeman
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The Very Real Dangers of Taking Sleeping Pills

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"Impaired driving is one of the biggest problems with sleeping pills, because people don't realize they're still hazy," says Bazil. In other words, it's almost like driving drunk in that you don’t have good judgment or quick reaction times—so the risk of accidents increases drastically. Another big problem with taking sleeping pills is the after-effect that they have the next day. While they're supposed to wear off after eight hours, that drowsiness can last for much longer if you take too high a dose. As a result, many people are still sluggish in the morning when they get in the car to drive to work—and that's a serious safety threat.

MORE: The Real Reason Insomniacs Can't Fall Asleep.

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"That gives you enough time to develop better sleeping patterns, and then you'll want to think about going off them," he says. How often you use them within that month is up to you. "Some people take them every night, whereas others take them sporadically a couple times a week when they feel they really need them.". To do that, Bazil recommends using them for exactly one month (under a doctor's supervision) to retrain your brain—and then quitting them entirely. Think of them like sleep training wheels: At some point, you need to take them off. In the end, it's important to remember that at a basic level, sleeping pills don't fix the problem of long-term bad sleeping habits.

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So what's so dangerous about sleeping pills, exactly? Aren't they just designed to help you sleep, which is a good thing? "People think they're pretty much benign, but there are definiy problems there," explains Carl Bazil, M.D., director of sleep and epilepsy at Columbia University, who points out that prescription pills are generally stronger than the over-the-counter variety. "Yes, they're a quick fix to help you get a good night’s sleep temporarily, but they're not a long-term solution to sleep problems in general—and they can be dangerous if used incorrectly," he says.

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See, sleeping pills hit you right away. Next up on the list of potential harms is that sleeping pills can cause you to do weird-slash-questionable things around the house if you take them when you're not already in bed. But again, many people don't realize just how quickly the effects take hold, so they pop one, and go about their business for about half an hour—which can lead to harmful decisions. "If you take them while you're still awake, you may end up doing really weird—and potentially dangerous—things that you don't even remember," says Bazil. Think falling, burning yourself, or even having risky sex.

"If you take a high dose, or two at once, it could suppress your breathing," says Bazil, which would definiy constitute a trip to the ER. Sleeping pills can also cause harm when you mix them with other drugs, namely alcohol and stimulants. "It's not a good idea to mix sleeping pills with other drugs, ever," says Bazil. "What happens is it accentuates the effect of both of them—so you are more drugged off of both the pills and the booze or the stimulants. That means that the pill lasts longer, so chances are, you will feel more confused and groggy when you wake up." An even more extreme scenario is suppressed breathing.

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To get better rest without medication, read up on these six things that may be messing with your sleep and seven strategies for being so much better at falling asleep.

But some doctors still prescribe women more than that, while other women may have an older prescription or just borrow one from their husband (Note: Never ever share prescriptions). "And when they take too high a dose, the effect is extra strong," explains Bazil. One of the biggest dangers is that they hit women much harder than they hit men. "Women tend to metabolize sleeping pills slower than men do, but many people—including some doctors—don't know this," Bazil explains. In January 2013, the FDA lowered the recommended dose for women from 10 mg to 5 mg.

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Perhaps it was an OTC sleep aid or maybe you even have a prescription for something more potent. At some point in your life, you or someone you know has probably taken a sleeping pill. But according to new research, released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, those prescription meds may be more dangerous than you think.

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And unfortunay, females accounted for two thirds of those visits. The report showed that the number of emergency room visits involving overmedication of zolpidem—the active ingredient in some prescription sleeping pills—almost doubled between 2005 and 2010, increasing from 21,824 visits in a two-year period to 42,274.

The last big problem with sleeping pills is addiction, though luckily, it's not super common. Although the long-term dangers of prescription sleeping pills haven't been studied, Bazil says the big danger is when you stop using them after having become dependent on them. "If your body becomes accustomed to sleeping pills, you'll end up being worse off when you stop them because your body adapted—and that means you'll have more, not less, difficulty getting good rest," Bazil cautions.

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