Risky Business of Sleep Drugs

Risky Business of Sleep Drugs

After reading about the dangers of sleeping pills in the February 2016 edition of Consumer Reports magazine, we thought you might like to know something about that.

Some psychotropic drugs are prescribed as sleeping pills. Trazodone, an antidepressant, is often prescribed off label as a sleeping pill. Benzodiazepines such as Valium are also prescribed as sleeping pills. Other examples are Ambien (an anti-psychotic), Lunesta (an anti-anxiety drug), and Sonata (another anti-anxiety drug).

These have all the potential side effects we have come to associate with psychiatric drugs — including violence, suicide, addiction, and so on.

The latest sleeping pill fad, touted as “the new insomnia drug”, is Belsomra (generic “suvorexant”). It is classified as a “sedative-hypnotic” which means it is a central nervous system depressant; it alters brain chemistry by targeting a neurotransmitter called orexin.

Belsomra is manufactured by Merck, Sharpe & Dohme Corporation, and was approved by the FDA for insomnia in August of 2014.

Guess what? This drug carries the same warnings as other psychotropic drugs; it may cause memory loss, anxiety, confusion, agitation, hallucinations, depression, addiction, and thoughts of suicide — all this along with its own special side effects: inability to move or talk, sleep-walking, sleep-driving, and drowsiness lasting through the next day.

Here is what Consumer Reports has to say about Belsomra: “…people who took a 15- or 20-milligram dose of Belsomra every night for three months fell asleep just 6 minutes faster on average than those who took a placebo. And those on Belsomra slept on average only 16 minutes longer than people given a placebo. Such small improvements didn’t translate to people feeling more awake the next day, either. Instead, more people who took Belsomra reported that they felt drowsy the next day than those who took a placebo.”

“Because of the limited benefits and substantial risks of sleeping pills, Consumer Reports’ medical experts advise that sleep drugs should be used with great caution.”

“Merck spent $36 million on TV ads for its new drug Belsomra from Aug. 1 to Nov. 24, 2015, making it the second most advertised Rx drug in that time frame, according to iSpot.tv. The ads note that Belsomra is the first drug to target orexin, a chemical that plays a role in keeping people awake. But Belsomra doesn’t work much, or any, better than other sleep drugs. And because it’s new, little is known about its long-term safety.”

One take-away here is that even if a prescription drug is not advertised or prescribed for psychiatric reasons, if it messes with the brain’s neurotransmitters and has all the same side-effects as a psychiatric drug — well, you must get the picture by now.

The Consumer Reports article goes on to discuss non-drug sleep alternatives at some length; it is a good and helpful read.

When your doctor prescribes a drug, it is good practice to ask questions so you can give your full informed consent. These are some example questions you can ask:

1. What is the evidence for the diagnosis?
2. How does the treatment affect the body?
3. How does the treatment affect the mind?
4. What unwanted effects may occur?
5. Is it approved by the FDA for this condition?
6. What is known and not known about how safe it is and how well it works?
7. What are the alternatives, including the option of no treatment?
8. Does the doctor or the clinic have a financial interest in pushing the diagnosis or treatment?

Leave a Reply