The Health Risks of Taking Sleeping Pills

Medicine bottle
A new study has found that those who take as few as 18 sleeping pills per year are at a greater risk for deaths and certain types of cancer.  People who took the most sleeping pills per year actually had a higher risk of getting certain cancers than smokers. Learn more about the health risks of sleeping pills.

Sleeping pills used to be thought of as a temporary relief for insomnia. During the past decade, new and stronger pills were developed with more side effects. A new study has found that those who use sleeping pills are not only at a higher risk of death, but also have a higher risk of getting cancer.

Sleeping Pills Raise the Risk of Cancer and Death

Out of more than 24 studies relating sleeping pills to deaths, 18 studies reported a significant relationship between mortality and sleeping pills. It is estimated that almost 10% of the adult population of the United States used prescription sleeping pills at some time in 2010.

A comprehensive new study recently published followed and tracked the results of 10,529 patients who had been subscribed sleeping pills, also known as hypnotics or sedative-hypnotics. As a control group, the study followed and tracked 23,670 people who had no prescriptions for sleeping pills. Both groups had an average age of 54 and were followed for an average of 2 ½ years between 2002 and 2007.

This was not just some data thrown into a database to see what the outcome would be. Researches wanted to make sure the data in this study was not skewed in any way. The data was adjusted to take into account age, body mass index (BMI), gender, smoking, ethnicity, marital status, alcohol use and any prior cancer diagnosis of those in the study.

Sleeping Pill Study Results

This is not the first study that looked at death rates among those who used sleeping pills. Previous studies going back to 1979 also found a higher risk of death among those who took sleeping pills compared to those who did not [1].

The conclusion of this study found the following risk of deaths due to sleeping pills:

  • For those who had been prescribed 18 or less sleeping pills per year, had a 3.5 times higher risk of death compared with those who had no sleeping pill prescriptions.
  • Those who had 18 to 32 doses prescribed per year were four times more at risk of death.
  • Those with more than 132 doses prescribed per year had a greater than five times higher risk of death compared to the group that had no sleeping pill prescriptions [2].

Another finding of this study was that those taking prescription sleeping pills were also at an increased risk of getting certain types of cancer. Those that had the highest amount of sleeping pills prescribed, 132 doses or more per year, had a 35% higher risk of getting cancer.

Sleeping Pills in the Study

The sleeping pills and their brand names that were prescribed in this study were [3]:

  • Zolpidem: (Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo and Zolpimist).
  • Temazepam: (Restoril and Temazepam Gelthix).
  • Zaleplon: (Sonata).
  • Eszopiclone: (Lunesta and Lunestar)
  • And other benzodiazepines (commonly known as Valium, Daizepam and Xanax).

Increased Risk of Deaths, Illness and Cancer

The study listed the usual types of deaths that can occur with using sleeping pills such as car accidents, falling, and mixing with alcohol.

Depending on the patient, sleeping pills can help with sleep apnoea or it can make it worse. Sleep apnoea can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension), arrhythmias, heart failure and cardiovascular disease.

Some of the possible reasons for an increase in deaths, illness or cancer from sleeping pills could be how sleeping pills interfered with the upper respiratory tract. Studies have found that zolpidem increased the incidence of gastroesophageal regurgitation and other sleeping pills increased esophageal regurgitation and peptic ulcers. Esophageal regurgitation can cause damage to the esophagus or cancer.

Patients who took sleeping pills reported more infections which could be caused by the irritation that the gastroesophageal regurgitation causes. More infections could lead to more deaths [4].

Studies using rodents found that sleeping pills could cause damage to chromosomes. The risk of lymphomas, colon, lung and prostate cancers is higher for those who use sleeping pills than it is for smokers [5].

Limitations of the Study

This study used data from the electronic medical records, which tracks prescriptions. A main limitation of the study was that there was no way for the researchers to know if those in the study took all or any of their prescribed sleeping pills. There was also no way to know if those in the non-sleeping pill control group took sleeping pills that were not prescribed for them.

Healthy Alternatives to Sleeping Pills

Most of the reasons a person cannot fall asleep can be helped without having to take sleeping pills. Here are some healthy alternatives to sleeping pills.

  • If your reason for not falling asleep is anxiety, stress or excessive worry, seeking therapy would be a much healthier alternative to sleeping pills.
  • Do not drink coffee or energy drinks after 3 PM.
  • For most people, strenuous exercise in the evening can cause a person to be wide awake at bedtime.
  • Do not drink more than two alcoholic drinks near bedtime.
  • Warm milk really can work for some.
  • There are herbs that can help alleviate insomnia and stress like chamomile, passion flower and lemon balm. For more information, please read Natural Remedies to Relieve Stress and Anxiety.


The study’s conclusion states that “Rough order-of-magnitude estimates at the end of the supplemental files suggest that in 2010, hypnotics may have been associated with 320,000 to 507,000 excess deaths in the USA alone.”  

That is an amazingly high number of deaths associated with sleeping pills. Associated with sleeping pills could mean deaths from suicides, accidental overdoses, accidents of all kinds and mixing with alcohol, infections, illness and certain cancers.

I have heard doctors say this new study is wrong and fear mongering and that a few sleeping pills are okay. But the next time you are not able to fall asleep, you might think twice before reaching for the sleeping pills.

Copyright © Sam Montana February 2012


[1] JAMA - Short and Long Sleep and Sleeping Pills Is Increased Mortality Associated? Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1979;36(1):103-116.
[2] Study - Hypnotics' association with mortality or cancer: a matched cohort study. BMJ Open 2012;2:e000850 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-000850
[3] PubMed - Meta-analyses of hypnotics and infections: eszopiclone, ramelteon, zaleplon, and zolpidem. J Clin Sleep Med. 2009 Aug 15;5(4):377-83.
[4] BMJ - Cancer risk higher than for smokers - Supplemental data – Table 11 Page 14
[5] PubMed - Kripke DF. Possibility that certain hypnotics might cause cancer in skin. J Sleep Res 2008;7:245–50.


  1. I enjoyed reading this article. PLease continue publishing helpful topics like this. Regards, from bedding stock

  2. Hi Steve, I'm glad you liked the article.