You lay in bed, tossing and turning. Your body is completely exhausted, but your mind is racing with the day’s activities. Or worse yet, you’re stressing out about all the things on your to-do list for tomorrow.
Insomnia has become a major health concern worldwide with about 15% of the global population seeking relief with sleeping pills or tranquilizers. In the United States, about 60 million prescriptions for sleeping pills are issued each year and usage has continued to grow particularly for 20-45 year olds.
The most commonly prescribed type of sleeping pill is non-benzodiazepines, also called z-drugs — zaleplon (Sonata), zolpidem (Ambien), zopiclone (Imovane), and eszopiclone (Lunesta). These z-drugs stimulate the activity of a neurotransmitter (gamma-aminobutyric acid) to help slow the brain down and facilitate sleep. However, a recent scientific journal article has raised some concerns about using z-drugs.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School, the University of Connecticut and the University of London performed a quantitative statistical analysis (meta-analysis) of 13 studies on the effectiveness of z-drugs and their associated placebo response. They selected only randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trials, which means that neither the 4378 participants nor the researchers knew who was given the drug and who the placebo. The researchers obtained the data from the US Food and Drug Administration, using both published and unpublished trials submitted as part of the drug approval process in order to avoid “publication bias.” Their research results were published in the British Medical Journal on December 17, 2012.
This large, well-designed study found that z-drugs helped participants fall asleep more quickly, as measured subjectively by the participants and by equipment in a sleep lab. This was particularly true for younger, female participants. However, half the effect of the drug was found to be due to a placebo response. Specifically, participants on average fell asleep in the lab only 22 minutes faster if taking the z-drug compared to the placebo. This has raised concern on whether the benefits of taking z-drugs are worth the risk of adverse side effects, which include daytime fatigue, memory loss, problems with balance, dependency and an associated risk of an earlier death.