It’s easy to see why the practice of simply popping a pill to fall asleep faster is a growing trend. Life is stressful and full of daily challenges. Who would want to deal with another issue—like not falling asleep easily?
A sleep prescription is a quick and easy answer, and doctors are quick to oblige.
But if consumers knew all the risks that came with the convenience, they might decide on a different tactic.
The latest published study concluded the use of common sleeping medications increases the risk of developing dementia a few years later.
The dementia link was made not only with popular sleeping medications like Benzos and Ambien, but also with common antidepressants that are often prescribed as sleep aids.
Sleep disorders—including trouble falling asleep or staying asleep—are widespread in the U.S. Different surveys conducted in the past two decades report a wide variance in the percentage of Americans who rely on sleep prescriptions; however, a recent report by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) places the number at 18 percent.
The NCHS, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported that those who say they take sleep medication “most nights” was 6% of the population; those who reported using sleep medicine “every night” was 2%; and those reporting “some nights” was 10%.
The NCHS report, which was based on 2020 data, also found that more women than men take sleep medication, and usage overall increased with age.
Dementia study details
The new study was conducted at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF), and was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in January 2023. To conduct the study authors analyzed data on 3,000 older adults who were dementia-free and lived outside of nursing homes.
All of the study-subjects were part of the much broader Health, Aging and Body Composition study. Study participants’ average age was 74 years-old, and the average time they were tracked was nine years.
Over the course of the study, 20 percent of those participants developed dementia; however, there was a substantial difference between Black and White study subjects.
White participants who “often” or “almost always” took sleep medications displayed a whopping 79-percent higher risk of developing dementia in comparison to those who “never” or “rarely” used sleeping pills.
Meanwhile, among Black participants specifically, a group whose consumption of sleep aids in general was markedly lower, frequent users didn’t appear all that more likely to develop dementia in comparison to those who abstained completely or rarely used sleep medications.
The researchers postulated that the differences may be attributed to socio-economic status; or, since each medication carries a different relative risk, the preference between Blacks and Whites for different brands may partly explain the reason.
Lead author Dr Yue Leng, PhD, from the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences noted future studies could “provide further clarity on the cognitive risks or rewards of sleep medications, as well as the influence of one’s race.”
In addition to proper risk assessment the researchers noted it’s probably a smart idea to simply “avoid these medications whenever possible”—and first try non-drug approaches to address the issue.
Drug-free ways to sleep better
The CDC website offers some basic lifestyle behavior modifications to make before reaching for a bottle of pills:
• Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including weekends.
• Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature.
• Remove electronic devices such as TVs, computers, and phones out of the bedroom.
• Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime. Don’t use tobacco.
• Exercise regularly. Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night.
These are just beginning steps anyone can do to embark on a journey to better sleep. Herbs and other nutrients can also help improve sleep quality. See list at the bottom of this page for more information.
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Nutrients known to support sleep continuity:
Nutritional support for sleep disorders can be found in a number of research-backed nutrients.
• Valerian root, perhaps the best known of herbal sleep aids, dates back over two thousand years to the Greek and Roman Empires. It was noted by Hippocrates, who recommended if for headaches, nervousness, trembling, and heart palpitations.
• L-Tryptophan is an amino acid found in most proteins—both animal and plant. It is essential in humans, meaning that the body cannot synthesize it and it must be obtained from the diet. It is perhaps the most widely researched and accepted nutrient to help calm the body, and is found in many natural sleep aids.
• Chamomile flower is a perennial herb that has been shown to promote a relaxed and calming state of mind which helps the body fall asleep faster. These benefits may be attributed to an antioxidant called apigenin. Apigenin binds to specific receptors in the brain that help decrease anxiety and initiate sleep.
• Lemon balm is another sleep herb with a history dating back over 2,000 years. It is listed in the Historia Plantarum, dated to around 300 BC. Today it is the main ingredient of Carmelite water, which is still for sale in German pharmacies. Research shows it has a calming and sleep-promoting effect, which is achieved in part by increasing GABA levels.
• Hops extract, an essential ingredient in beer brewing, has been used medicinally since medieval times. Early physicians observed that hops pickers tired very easily during the harvest and assumed that a sticky resin excreted by the cut plant caused this effect. Modern studies have corroborated these early observations.
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