Sleeping pills are another short-term fix with long-term problems

Anne O'Connor
Anne O'Connor: We are the most powerful force for our own health and wellness.
Submitted photo

Anne O'Connor, a speaker, writer and editor in Viroqua, Wis., blogs at

A man I know, Peter, was having some health problems. He went to his doctor, and while they were talking, Peter's trouble getting to sleep came up. So his doctor prescribed Ambien, a popular brand of sleeping pill. Peter started sleeping better right away.

But now a study that links sleeping pills to major diseases has Peter wondering about his own risk.

The study, done by researchers at Scripps Clinic in San Diego, says that people who use sleeping pills are at a greater risk for diseases such as cancer and heart disease than people who don't use sleeping pills. And this whopper: The study says that people who use sleeping pills have a higher risk of death.

With millions of patients using these handy little pills on a regular basis, there's some freaking out going on. Some patients are responding with a clear message: "I'd rather be able to sleep and live a shorter life." But others are understandably worried. And there are doctors who say that the study isn't conclusive and that more studies need to be done, even though others already have raised similar alarms. But however people greet the news, this is an issue for the almost one in 10 adults in this country who uses sleeping pills.

It's so easy to see how this kind of thing happens. Without sleep, our worlds quickly become jagged, stressful and unmanageable. When sleep is hard to come by, we become desperate to try just about anything. Health care providers want to help, and a sleeping pill can seem like a good answer.

Your support makes a difference.

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Whether sleeping pills are helping to kill people will continue to be a subject of debate. But this study underscores that medications often cause more problems than they solve.

And this brings up something I believe: We are the most powerful force for our own health and wellness. I am not a purist about most things. Antibiotics have saved my family many times over. When my kid couldn't breathe in the middle of the night, I was eternally grateful for steroids. When excruciating pain knocked me off my feet, you can be sure that I took the scary pain meds. Modern medicine is my friend.

But I will repeat the unlikely advice from my neurosurgeon: "The body's natural trajectory is one of healing." This from a woman whose primary training is cutting people open to fix them. And she's right.

So if we can't sleep, or we are overweight, or we are depressed, or something isn't right in our bodies, the first and most important thing to consider is what are we doing to contribute to the problem. And what can we do to help ourselves heal?

There are many practical, simple things we can do to get a good night's sleep. We can stop drinking caffeine and eating chocolate. We can exercise regularly. We can nap during the day, which can actually help us sleep at night (read "Take a Nap, Change Your Life"). We can create a sleep routine and set a bedtime. (A bedtime? For grownups? Yep.) We can turn off the television and the computer two hours before going to bed. We can create a dark, quiet sleeping space.

Or we could pop an Ambien.

I know that there are people out there who do all they can, and a restful night still eludes them. I'm not interested in making anyone into a bad guy for taking a medication they need. But sleep, like much of how we take care of ourselves, requires some investigation, some commitment and some work. When things in our bodies go wrong, the first useful place to look is at our own behavior.

Our bodies are sophisticated and miraculous. They will tell us when something we're doing isn't working for them. And when we give them the proper support, our bodies can heal from incredible pain, devastating disease, and problems that feel like a death sentences.

But time and again, we look for that support from some other place. We imagine that our solution comes from some external factor: a doctor who has a cure, a magic drink that will solve our problem, or a pill that alleviates our pain. And, just about as often, we find that the easy solution, the quick fix, the pill to solve the problem simply creates more problems than it's worth.

Peter went to a doctor he had never seen before. He spent 15 minutes with him and walked out with a prescription. The doctor didn't ask about his caffeine use, let alone his nicotine or other drug use. The doctor didn't ask about his diet. The doctor didn't ask about his exercise habits or if he had a routine for getting to sleep. And the doctor didn't mention meditation or other stress-relieving exercises.

I'm not blaming doctors. Many patients are screaming for easy, fast solutions to complex problems. They come to a health care provider looking for a fix. So we find ourselves dealing with yet another scare. Yesterday it was Fen-Phen. Today it's sleeping pills. What will it be tomorrow?

Instead, we might try educating ourselves about what our bodies need. We could learn to treat our health care providers with respectful attention, and to genuinely expect them to teach us something about how to care for these vessels. And we could stop expecting them to fix problems that we ourselves are not willing to address.