Critics Worry About Sleeping Pills' 'Unknown Risk'

Junene Hrycko of Danbury, Conn., was tortured by sleepless nights. One morning after being up all night tossing and turning, she smashed her alarm clock with a hammer.

"Its frustrating to know that your body wants to go to sleep," Hrycko said. "You can feel sleep coming and you get yourself ready, you get into bed, and it just doesn't come. It's exhausting."

She got a prescription for Ambien, the popular sleeping pill, and immediately began sleeping through the night.

"It felt wonderful to get hours of sleep," she said.

But some doctors see an increasing reliance on sleeping pills as a sign of trouble or a potential problem.

A Growing Problem?

According to TNS Media, 20 million Americans suffer from insomnia, and many of them are turning to sleeping pills.

Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata are part of a new class of drugs some call breakthroughs. They are supposed to have few or no side effects, so many doctors are willing to prescribe them for long-term use. Prescriptions rose almost by 60 percent in the past six years and reached 42 million last year.

"I think insomnia is becoming a worse, a more significant problem in the U.S.," said Dr. Andrew Tucker of the Danbury Hospital Sleep Disorders Center. "The reason for that is that in our 24/7 mentality, and in this society where time is money, I think you're seeing people burn the candle at both ends."

Some doctors say the surge in popularity of sleep aids may be the result of marketing. Last year, drug makers spent $300 million -- four times the previous year -- to convince consumers that sleep aids are safe and effective.

"Patients come into their office asking for a pill they see every night on TV," said Dr. Gregg Jacobs of Harvard University Medical School. "Between the advertising to the consumer and to the health care provider, we see a massive increase in the number of sleeping pills being prescribed."

'Unknown Risk'

Jacobs worries the drugs may be over-prescribed.

"There have been no long-term studies," he said, "so if you're going to take a sleeping pill long term, you're assuming unknown risk."

A spokesman for Sanofi-Aventis, the maker of Ambien, released a statement that read: "When taken as prescribed, Ambien is a safe and effective treatment for insomnia. It is up to the doctor to determine the appropriate length of treatment."

Alternatives

Doctors say it's important to realize insomnia can be a symptom of other underlying problems like depression.

They suggest if you have insomnia there are other things you can do besides taking drugs:

Use your bedroom for sleeping only -- take out TVs, computers and anything that has to work.

Consult a sleep professional: There are breathing and relaxation exercises you can do.

Hrycko is a patient of Tucker's. He monitors her sleep, gives her advice on how to change her habits and has given her a breathing exercise regime.

She says it works, and has been able to sleep without pills.

"I just didn't believe it was possible to sleep without medication," she said, "and I'm doing it every night."