This week, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration published a new study which shows that emergency room (ER) visits caused by prescription sleeping medication increased by a whopping 220 percent from 2005 to 2010.  Zolpidem, which is the most popular substance for the short-term treatment of insomnia, is under fire for drastically increasing the number of ER visits due to individuals taking sleep aids.

“Sleep-inducing drugs merely provide a temporary solution and only mask the true underlying causes of insomnia,” said Pax Prentiss, CEO and co-founder of the Passages Addiction Treatment Centers in Malibu and Ventura, California. “When people use them to self medicate, particularly in conjunction with alcohol or other prescription medications, the results can be dangerous, devastating, and very serious,” he added.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required makers of zolpidem to cut the recommended dosage due to health concerns.  Adverse side effects from the drug include drowsiness, dizziness, and problems driving.  Additionally, healthcare professionals are increasingly concerned of a growing epidemic where prescription users combine high dosage of sleep aids with alcohol, other prescriptions, and drugs to create a dangerous cocktail of substances.

Credit: Commons/Flickr
Credit: Commons/Flickr

On May 14, the FDA approved labels with lower recommended doses for sleep medications containing zolpidem.  The controversial drug is known to affect patients’ mental alertness long after its use.

People with sleeping problems have been searching for natural alternatives to zolpidem.

Two years ago, the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published a report that a nightly dose of melatonin helps children with autism and insomnia fall asleep.  Melatonin is a naturally occurring compound found in animals, plants, and microbes and has been available as an over-the-counter drug in the United States since the mid-1990s.

According to the 2011 study, autistic children, ages 3 to 9, completed the 14-week treatment where they received a nightly regimen of melatonin (1 – 6 mg) which helped with sleep within a week’s time with no significant side effects.  The journal stated that “parents also reported improvements in their children’s daytime behavior and reductions in their own stress levels”.

Nearly half of Americans – more than 150 million individuals – are constantly sleep-deprived (less than six hours of sleep).

Aside from busy schedules, technology may be partly to blame for insomnia and restlessness in the bedroom.  On May 1, the Better Sleep Council published a study which found that the presence of technological gadgets (such as smartphones and tablets) inside the bedroom tend to make people restless and therefore more prone to become insomniacs.  Nearly 80 percent of Americans don’t turn off their cellphones at night.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 36 percent of U.S. adults are obese.  The lack of physical activity and a healthy lifestyle, along with large intake of caffeine, appear to be contributing factors in more people lacking sufficient rest.  Some researchers believe that as much as 70 percent of the U.S. population may be getting sleep of less than six hours each night.  Physicians recommend getting seven to nine hours of sleep every day.

According to a May 14 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, obesity in America is identified as a potential culprit in the increases in sleep apnea rates.  Researchers estimate that between 80 and 90 percent of an increase in sleep apnea symptoms is likely due to increasing obesity in the United States.  The Wisconsin researchers estimate that 4 to 5 million individuals are more likely to suffer from sleeping problems due to obesity.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that about 10 to 15 percent of adults have an insomnia disorder with distress or daytime impairment.  Although more research is needed, the long-term effects of insomnia can be deadly.  It is well established that sleeplessness is one of the symptoms of individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  In February, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

A new study published on May 15 by the University of Pennsylvania suggests that proper sleep can significantly reduce the risk of suicide.  According to the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Research Program in Philadelphia, research shows that every one-hour increase in sleep duration was associated with a 72 percent decrease in the likelihood of moderate or high suicide risk.  The researchers will present their findings on June 4 in Baltimore at the 27th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

Natrol, a market leading provider of melatonin, has reported a significant uptick in demand.  People who have trouble sleeping may not produce enough melatonin naturally.  Thus, more individuals are taking a melatonin supplement half an hour before bed.

Unlike synthetic sleeping pills, melatonin does not introduce unnatural chemicals into a person’s blood stream.  The appropriate amount of dosage may depend on the user’s age.  Some researchers believe that the level of natural melatonin the body produces diminishes with age.

Sleep deprivation messes with the body’s energy balance.  According to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, reduced sleep may disrupt appetite, promote greater food intake, reduce energy expenditure, and change body composition to favor more fat storage.

Thus, proper sleep likely results in more than just not waking up groggy or irritated.  It can help to restore the body’s energy balance.