Sleep aids are a more than $2 billion per year industry. Forecasts predict that global prescriptions for anti-anxiety medicines will reach $5.9 billion per year by 2017. But are these drugs safe? Studies show how easy it is to get hooked and a new study just published in the British Medical Journal shows that anti-anxiety and sleep drugs can kill you.
Using data from the prescription records of primary care doctors, the study compared 34,727 patients prescribed anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) or hypnotic (sleep) drugs to 69,418 people not prescribed these drugs. Over 90 percent of the prescribed drugs were benzodiazepines or Z-drugs, which you might know by brand names like Xanax, Valium, Lunesta, Ambien and many more.
The study found that over the average 7.6-year follow-up period, for every 100 people followed there were about 4 more deaths in the prescription drug group than in the control group.
As you can imagine, the big challenge in this study was pulling out the influence of all the other things that might matter. For example, was the prescription drug group more likely to have other challenges that increased their chance of death? Researchers did their best, controlling for factors like “sex, age at study entry, sleep disorders, anxiety disorders, other psychiatric disorders, medical morbidity, and prescriptions for non-study drugs.” They also controlled for socioeconomic status, alcohol and smoking.
The results remained: The 4-per-100 death increase doubled the chance of death in the prescription drug group compared to controls. And the more prescription drugs a person took during the study, the greater their chance of death increased – the more drugs, the more morbidity.
The thing is, this study is just one in a long line of research showing the dangers of psychotropic medicines prescribed for anxiety, sleep, depression and a host of other mental health challenges. For example, even though you’re told not to drive, people prescribed these medicines have more than six times the risk of hospitalization due to traffic accident in the two weeks after the prescription is first filled. And, “Even at modest doses…treatment with benzodiazepines appears to increase the risk of hip fracture,” writes an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The list of unintended risks of psychotropic medications goes on to include seizure, birth defects, heart rate variability, suicide, and even cancer.
Not to mention addiction. Absolutely every day at my center, we treat addictions to prescription anti-anxiety and sleep medications. In addition to the health consequences of these drugs, if left untreated, dependence has the potential to rob people of relationships, careers and their sense of self. Addiction is a heartbreaking consequence of these drugs and is largely overlooked by the medical model that is designed to treat symptoms instead of diseases – have a fever? Take a Tylenol. Have trouble sleeping? Take an Ambien.
The fact is that at best psychotropic medications mask the symptoms of an underlying illness. Then when a person stops taking these dangerous drugs to steer clear of the health or mental health consequences, the symptoms often return. Instead, this most recent article in the British Medical Journal and the hundreds of others add weight to a scale that is already tipped far in favor of a better way: psychotherapeutic techniques that heal the root causes of anxiety or sleep issues and not drugs that mask their symptoms are the best way to treat addiction and mental health challenges. In the great an ongoing debate of prescriptions versus holistic therapies, this study adds yet more support to the essential truth of drug-free treatment.
Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also coauthor with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.
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Last reviewed: 15 Apr 2014