To get a good night’s sleep, many people will do almost anything, which includes millions reaching for sleeping pills. Trouble is, there’s mounting evidence of dangers that may be far worse than anyone could have imagined. While I’ve always advised my patients to avoid drugs to induce sleep, the message needs to get out to a wider audience, which is why I encourage everyone to spread the word about the potentially devastating effects sleeping pills can have on both short and long-term health

Here’s why quitting – very slowly, over time, and under your doctor’s supervision to minimize withdrawal symptoms – is so important:

An increased risk of dementia

When it comes to brain function, the news about sleeping pills gets scarier by the minute. Several recent British and French studies involving older adults concluded that those who took benzodiazepines, the class of drugs often prescribed to combat sleep disorders, put users at a roughly 50% higher dementia risk than non-users. Another 2012 study published in the British Medical Journal linked prescription sleeping pill use to an increased risk of death. And it’s not just the classic meds like Valium, Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan that are cause for concern. Cash-cow sleep aids like Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata also make the list as they behave much like the benzodiazepines, acting on the same parts of the brain.

Risk of dependency, addiction and overdose

People love their sleeping pills because they’re effortless, effective and fast-acting. Trouble is, the more reliant on sleeping pills the body becomes, the more dangerous they become. Taking them for an extended period causes tolerance to increase, which means you need more of the drug to get the same result, which can lead to accidental fatal overdose – when bodily functions, like breathing and heartbeat, slow, then stop altogether.

Risk of unusual behaviors

In some cases, the behavioral side-effects of sleeping pills can be so bizarre, insomnia may seem a saner option. Strange behaviors like sleep-eating, online sleep-shopping and far more alarming ones like sleepwalking or even sleep-driving can put users in precarious situations, causing injury to themselves and others. Prescription sleeping pills tend to put most people in a state somewhat akin to a blackout, leaving them utterly unable to recall what’s happened while they were under the influence. Sleeping pills are believed to have played pivotal roles in a number of incidents of road-rage, car accidents, criminal behavior, sexual assault and even mass gun violence. While such extreme examples may not be the norm, they do point to the drug’s ability to trigger wildly erratic or aberrant behaviors in some users.

If you already have an affinity for drugs like Ambien, Sonata, Lunesta or benzodiazepines, don’t try to quit cold turkey. Depending on how hooked you are, suddenly stopping the pills can be extremely dangerous – think panic attacks, depression, rebound insomnia, seizures, psychosis, etc. – so go slow and work with your doctor to establish a medically supervised plan to taper off.

So what’s a troubled sleeper to do?

The good news is, you don’t have to lose sleep or tough it out, as it is possible to fall asleep without a pharmaceuticals.

Here are 6 sleep-savvy strategies to put you on the path to sleep success:

  1. Rest Your Belly

To rest easier, eat light at night (at least 3 hours before bed) to ensure your body will be resting instead of digesting, which can make it tougher to fall asleep.

  1. Deprive Your Senses

To fall asleep faster, you’ll need a cool, quiet, dark room. Blackout curtains, sleep masks, earplugs, and a white noise machine (optional) will also help ease the transition to dreamland.

  1. Prepare to Sleep

Turn off all screens, computers, iPads, iPhones, etc. at least one hour before bed. Engage in quiet, relaxing activities to help downshift mind and body to a sleep-friendlier state.

  1. Try Taking a Little Melatonin – Strategically

Melatonin, in low doses for short periods, can help regulate sleep rhythms. Generally, 1/2mg -2 mg about an hour and a half before bed should do the trick.

  1. Power Down With Calming Nutrients

My favorites are Magnesium (300-600 mg); the amino acids L theanine (100-500mg), 5 HTP (50-100mg), taurine and GABA, or herbs like lemon balm, passion flower, chamomile, magnolia and valerian root.

  1. Try some CBD oil.

I have been recommending CBD oil lately and a number of patients now swear by it. Finding the right dose and strain that works for you can sometimes be tricky, but it’s worth exploring.

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