Sleeping pills help you sleep, right? At least that's why so many people take them. But new research suggests they don't work as well as people think. But, even worse, the research says the pills have a potentially dangerous and little-known side effect - they can rob you of something very precious.

The study, funded by the NIH (not a drug company), looked at the newer sleeping pills, such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata. And what it found should make you very wary of these drugs.

The researchers divided the participants into two groups. They gave one group sleeping pills and the other group a placebo. They found that the sleeping pills reduced the average time it took to fall asleep by less than 13 minutes compared to the fake pills. And they increased the total sleep time by only 11 minutes over the placebo.

The researchers also studied the older sleeping drugs, including Halcion and Restoril. This group fell asleep 10 minutes faster and slept 32 minutes longer than those taking the placebo.

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But here's where this study gets really interesting. The participants believed they had slept longer! They actually thought they slept about 52 extra minutes with the older drugs and 32 minutes with the newer drugs. That means the larger benefit is only psychological - you'll think you slept longer than you really do. But this really isn't a benefit ... it's a serious problem. Let me explain.

Sleeping pills cause a condition called anterograde amnesia, which is a condition where you have trouble forming memories. When you wake up after taking sleeping pills, you may, in fact, simply forget that you had been unable to sleep. That will fool you into thinking that you slept longer.

This form of memory loss is often called traveler's amnesia. The FDA label for Halcion explains it clearly: "All benzodiazepine sleeping pills can cause a special type of amnesia (memory loss) in which a person may not recall events occurring during some period of time, usually several hours, after taking a drug. This is ordinarily not a problem, because the person taking a sleeping pill intends to be asleep during this vulnerable period of time. It can be a problem when the drugs are taken to induce sleep while traveling, such as during an airplane flight, because the person may awake before the effect of the drug is gone."

No one knows if the drugs do any permanent damage to the brain. But if they make it hard to form memories, even for a short period of time, you have to assume some damage occurs. The body has an amazing ability to heal itself. But do you really want to subject your brain to repeated damage (even if you sleep through it)?

Sleeping pills are questionable in their effectiveness. They can cost up to $4 per pill. They can cause a number of serious (though relatively uncommon) side effects, such as sleepwalking and sleep-eating. They can be habit forming. And they cause short-term memory loss. Now you know why I recommend melatonin (1-3 mg 30 minutes before bed) instead of sleeping pills. You can also try tryptophan (1,000 mg), 5-HTP (100 mg), calcium lactate (500 mg), or Seanol (Fibroboost - 2 capsules before bed). Be sure to get plenty of exercise. And wear warm socks when you go to bed.

Ref: New York Times October 23, 2007.

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