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Prescriptions for Sleeping Pills at Record Volumes

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Prescriptions for sleeping pills are at record volumes (56 million in 2008). In times of either emotional or financial stress, symptoms of insomnia rise, and so do prescriptions for sleeping pills. But how effective are they? A recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2008 showed that sleeping pills decreased the time it took to fall asleep by 18 minutes, and increased total sleep time by 28 minutes per night, on average.

It’s estimated that up to 50% of people suffer from insomnia occasionally, and about 10% have chronic insomnia. There are a lot of reasons that can cause insomnia, from stress to medical conditions to external factors such as excessive noise. And more and more are turning to a new generation of sleep aids like Ambien, the best seller, and its competitors Sonata and Lunesta.

Drug makers spent $300 million in the first 11 months of 2008 to convince consumers that the sleep aids are safe and effective. That was more than four times such ad spending in all of 2005.

Even the most infrequent television viewers would have trouble missing the lush Lunesta ads, which feature a luna moth fluttering around the bed of a peaceful sleeper.

But there’s a dark side to the quest for more sleep, some experts worry that the heavily advertised drugs are being oversubscribed without enough regard to known, if rare side effects or the implication of long term use. And they fear doctors may be ignoring other conditions, like depression, heart disease, excessive alcohol, tobacco or recreation drug use or stress, that might be the cause of sleeplessness.

Although the newer drugs are not believed to carry the same risk of dependence as older ones like barbiturates, some patients are reporting what is called the “next day” effect, a continued sleepiness many hours after awakening from a drug-induced slumber.

Your doctor may be able to alert you to the possibility of side effects if you have asthma or other health conditions. Sleeping pills make you breathe more slowly and less deeply. That can be dangerous for people with uncontrolled lung problems such as asthma or COPD.

While sleeping pill popping appears to be generally safe. One must ask are we simply masking a worrisome more deadly problem - unhealthy lifestyles?

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