We’ve all had sleepless nights — lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering why our brains keep chugging along even as the clock strikes four in the morning. The answer is probably different for everyone: too much caffeine, an onslaught of anxiety, bodily discomfort. But a fidgety night here and there is normal.
However, over the past few decades, either our insomnia has increased dramatically or our tolerance for it has precipitously dropped — because we’re taking more sleeping pills than ever before. Between 2002 and 2008, there was a 70% increase in prescriptions from an industry that brings in over $2 billion a year. So what’s going on: Who isn’t sleeping well and who is turning to pills? As it turns out, the answer in both cases is more women than men.
Who Uses Sleeping Pills?
According to a nationwide survey administered between 2005 and 2010, five percent of women versus three percent of men reported using pills to assist them in sleeping.
Several studies have demonstrated that women’s reliance on sleeping pills increases as they age. In a 2007 study by the National Sleep Foundation, over ten thousand women between 18 and 64 were polled on their sleeping habits. The findings state that women report more sleep problems as they get older and postmenopausal women (41%) were the most likely to utilize sleep aids multiple times a week.
But why is it that women tend to use sleep medication more than men? At this point, all we have is speculation.
Carl Bazil, neurology professor and the director of the Division of Epilepsy and Sleep at Columbia University Medical Center, says, “Women are known to have higher rates of insomnia. That likely has several causes: more depression, more willingness to admit to a sleeping problem, perhaps different outlets for stress release.” He also suggested that “women may also be more aware of the effects of sleep loss, whereas men may insist that they don’t really need much sleep.”
Daniel Kripke, emeritus professor of psychiatry at U.C. San Diego, also cites depression as a factor, but further ascribes women’s sleep issues to our biological landscape. “Pregnancy, childbirth, the menstrual cycle, and menopause are part of the reason, but there may be other biological and psychological reasons which are not well understood,” he said.
What Are The Different Types?
Zolpidem, better known as Ambien, currently holds the superlative for most popular sleep aid in the U.S., with over 40 million prescriptions in 2011 alone. It is a potent drug: earlier this year, the FDA announced that zolpidem remains in the body longer than previously thought, especially in the case of women, whose metabolisms process the drug slower. The agency subsequently issued a call for physicians to prescribe the lowest-effective dose in order to minimize day-after impairment.
Ambien belongs to a class of drugs known as hypnotics, which is cleaved into two subcategories: benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines. The former includes anti-anxiety meds, like Klonopin and Valium, which can be habit-forming. Non-benzodiazepines, like Ambien and Lunesta, operate within the brain similarly to Klonopin and related fare, but are widely considered to be safer.