Sleeping pills: Risks and dangers

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Sleeping pills: Risks and dangers

Sleeping pills help you fall asleep- sure. But at what cost? What are the real side effects of these pills and are they dangerous for our health? While prescribed by doctors, sleeping pills come with real risks that are rarely publicly known. Effectively, few people know the real risks involved in taking sleeping pills: degraded sleep, dependence… In this article, we’ve gathered together studies that clearly establish a link between sleeping pills and increased risk of cancer, memory loss, and sleepiness.

What are sleeping pills?

Also known as hypnotics, sleeping pills are obtained via prescription following consultation with a doctor. The name ‘sleeping pills’ is an umbrella term that covers several different types of sleep medication: hypnotics that induce sleep and tranquilizers which lower anxiety levels. This medication uses chemical elements like benzodiazepines, which are in large part responsible for the risks laid out in this article.


Benzodiazepines act directly on nerve endings (working with the neurotransmitter- GABA)  and muscle fiber to induce sleep and reduce anxiety. They have a relatively long lifespan, leaving the taker feeling groggy during the day too. Habituation and dependence are also a problem- after just 3 weeks of use, the body becomes dependent.

are sleeping pills bad for you

Risks associated with sleeping pills

Numerous risks are linked to sleeping pills, making their prescription controversial and much debated within the medical community. These risks, mostly linked to benzodiazepines, affect different parts of the body: brain, muscles etc.

Higher risk of mortality

A US study published in the BMJ medical journal proved the link between the use of sleeping pills and mortality risk in patients.

  • Sleeping pills are associated with a risk of death over 4 times (4.6) greater than that of people who do not take them.

How then can this increased risk be explained? According to researchers, it can increase depression leading to suicide risk. There is also an increased risk of cancer, road accidents, sleepiness.  

Increased risk of cancer

The same study (published in the BMJ medical journal) also showed evidence linking the use of sleeping pills to cancer.

  • This study revealed that people taking notable benzodiazepines had a 35% higher risk of developing cancer than others. To reach this conclusion, the study took 10,000 adult Americans with an average age of 54, using sleeping pills. This group was monitored for over 2 years and compared with another group of over 23,000 people who had used no medical aid to sleep.

Memory loss and risk of Alzheimer’s

An INSERM study established that sleeping pills can aggravate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and speed up its evolution.  

  • The study showed that the use of benzodiazepine for 3 months or more is associated with greater risk (up to 51%) of developing Alzheimer’s.

What’s more, the study showed that the risk grew with the length of exposure. The longer you take sleeping pills for, the greater the risk will be.

Sleepiness during the day (and behind the wheel)

According to a study by the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, taking benzodiazepine increases the risks of road accidents.

  • Taking benzodiazepines increases the risk of having a road accident by over 40%.

This figure is not to be taken lightly. In France, for example, falling asleep at the wheel is the number 1 cause of death on the highway.

are sleeping pills bad for you

Risk of dependence and habituation

Before starting sleeping pills, it’s important to be aware that this can lead to dependence as well as increasing the risk of insomnia following treatment.

Doctor Sylvie Royant-Parola had this to say in her book: “Hypnotics attach themselves onto nerve cell receptors and can create dependence. Stopping is therefore difficult especially since many patients try to abruptly stop their treatment, which can cause a relapse into insomnia.”

So stopping sleeping pills may cause another bout of insomnia, creating a vicious cycle for the sufferer.

Degraded sleep quality

Taking sleeping pills damages the quality of sleep, deep sleep in particular. Doctor Françoise Goldenberg explains “benzodiazepines modify the architecture of your sleep, making it less rich in slow waves, proving a lack of deep sleep.”

This decrease in deep sleep has an impact on the body. Insufficiently rested to face the day, accidents related to tiredness and inattention are more likely.

Other solutions

As mentioned above, sleeping pills come with several risks (cancer, Alzheimer’s, sleepiness…). These risks can sometimes be fatal. However, they can nevertheless be effective when the risks are limited. For example when doctors prescribe them for short amounts of time. 

It’s also recommended to treat the roots of insomnia (stress, anxiety…) to limit the risks once you stop the pills.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) corrects the thoughts (cognitive) and actions (behavioral) that are at the root of larger sleep problems. CBT-I does this by breaking the negative patterns and cycles related to bad sleep and creating new habits and thought processes through set objectives, specific exercises, and close monitoring- be it by a professional or digitally. CBT-I is recognized by the international medical community as the leading reference solution for treating insomnia.

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