Love your sleeping pills? You may be risking cancer

A new study has found that regular users of sleeping pills are at a 4.6 times greater risk of death and also significantly greater risks of cancer

Nothing compares to a good night's sleep to make you feel refreshed and rested. However, if you're addicted to your sleeping pills, results from a Scripps Clinic study should make you stop immediately. The researchers have found that regular users of sleeping pills are at a 4.6 times greater risk of death. They are also at a significantly greater risks of cancer.

Woman taking pills at night
Regular users of sleeping pills are at greater risk of death and cancer.

"What our study shows is that sleeping pills are hazardous to your health and might cause death by contributing to the occurrence of cancer, heart disease and other ailments," said author Daniel F. Kripke, M.D., of the Viterbi Family Sleep Center in San Diego.

The research is the first to show that eight of the most commonly used hypnotic drugs were associated with increased hazards of mortality and cancer, including the popularly prescribed medications zolpidem and temazepam, Dr. Kripke said. These drugs had been thought to be safer than older hypnotics because of their shorter duration of action.

Study participants who took sleeping pills were matched with control patients of similar ages, gender and health who received no hypnotics in order to eliminate the possibility that other factors led to the results.

"We tried every practical strategy to make these associations go away, thinking that they could be due to use by people with more health problems, but no matter what we did, the associations with higher mortality held," said co-author Robert D. Langer, M.D., M.P.H., of the Jackson Hole Center for Preventive Medicine in Jackson, Wyoming.

It was found that even those who were prescribed 1 to 18 sleeping pills per year, were 3.6 times more likely to die than those who did not take the medications. The study looked at patients aged 18 years and older, and found the increased risk in all age groups.

Rates of new cancers were 35 percent higher among patients who were prescribed at least 132 hypnotic doses a year as compared with those who did not take the drugs.

"It is important to note that our results are based on observational data, so even though we did everything we could to ensure their validity, it's still possible that other factors ex-plain the associations," said co-author Lawrence E. Kline, D.O., who is medical director of the Viterbi Family Sleep Center.

The BMJ Open report should prompt physicians to consider alternatives to hypnotic medications, Dr. Kline said.

Clinicians at the Viterbi Family Sleep Center focus on cognitive therapy that teaches patients to better understand the nature of sleep. For example, some people suffering from insomnia might require less than the eight hours of sleep commonly recommended for each night.

The researchers suggest that those finding it difficult to fall asleep can also benefit from practicing good sleeping habits and relaxation, as well as taking advantage of the body's natural clock, which is driven by the rising and setting of the sun. "Understanding how to use the circadian rhythm is a very powerful tool that doesn't require a prescription," Dr. Kline said.

When insomnia results from emotional problems such as depression, doctors should treat the psychological disorder rather than prescribe sleeping pills that could prove to be harmful, suggests Dr. Kripke.

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