A recent study found that men and women who take sedative hypnotic drugs to sleep may increase their mortality risk by more than a third. Now, I know that lack of sleep is a huge problem, especially if you‘re under a lot of stress. But if you take a drug like Ambien to catch some z‘s, you could be heading for disaster.

The good news is, there are plenty of safe and natural sleep aids that won‘t send you to an early grave. More about those in a moment. But first, let me explain...

Why sedatives are so bad

According to some research, 20 percent of adults use some type of sleep aid each night. You may take an OTC drug like Tylenol PM to help get you through a rough couple of nights. These drugs contain antihistamines plus pain relievers. These drugs are tough on the liver and your digestive system, but they‘re not nearly in the same league as a prescription drug like Ambien.

Ambien belongs to a class of drugs called sedative hypnotics. And there are two distinct types of sedative hypnotic drugs. The first type of sedatives -- called benzodiazepines -- hit the market in the 1950s. Xanax and Ativan are the most well-known. Side effects range from daytime sleepiness to urinary incontinence to respiratory problems. But the biggest drawback for these heavy-duty drugs is the tendency to become dependent on them.

Plus,sedative hypnotic drugs stay in your system longer than a newer class of hypnotics called non-benzodiazepines. And that‘s why the more recent drugs like Ambien have been such blockbusters. They‘re perceived as safer and less addicting.

But according to the new study, they‘re just as dangerous...if not more so because you think you‘re safe taking them for a longer period.

Sedative drug use may increase mortality risk by 36 percent

For this study, scientists analyzed data for 14,000 people. They found that men and women who took sedative hypnotic drugs had a 36 percent greater risk of dying. And those at greatest risk were men and women over age 55. In addition, men and women with pre-existing health conditions -- such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, or respiratory disease -- also ran a greater risk of dying after taking a sedative.

According to the published report, there are a number of reasons why this happens...

First off, both types of sedative hypnotic drugs impair your ability to stay alert. They also affect your coordination. This -- they authors wrote -- contributes to an increase in falls and car accidents. Secondly, we know that these drugs can also trigger or aggravate breathing disorders. So imagine what taking a sedative will do to someone who‘s already got sleep apnea or asthma...or someone who smokes! It‘s a recipe for disaster.

Lastly, these drugs may cause depression...or make existing depression worse. They can also play games with your central nervous system. As a result, feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin can be disturbed. Therefore, I‘m guessing that some of the premature deaths in the study may have occurred due to suicide.

So if sedative drugs aren‘t the answer to your sleep problems...what is?

Safely and naturally improving your sleep

You already know to keep your room a cool, dark, TV-free zone. And exercising before bed will just rev you up. Plus, here are few other tips that should help you get back to a healthy sleep pattern...

1. Get off all stimulants. Yup, even in the morning. Coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate are the obvious culprits. But you should also avoid taking ginseng, B12, or milk thistle before bed too. You‘ll also want to avoid eating bacon, cheese, chocolate, ham, potatoes, sugar, sausage, spinach, or tomatoes close to bedtime. These foods contain tyramine, which increases the release of norepinephrine, a brain stimulant. Most processed foods also contain tyramine.

2. Try upping your daily magnesium. Go for 500 mg capsules at bedtime. If you also suffer from mild anxiety, this amount of magnesium may also lessen your symptoms.

3. If you‘re under the age of 40, try using l-tryptophan. It‘s an essential amino acid found in turkey, chicken, tuna, whole grain crackers, eggs, bananas, figs and dates. So, if you must eat before bed, these are all safe choices. But of course, to get enough l-tryptophan from food, you‘d have too eat a lot of it— nothing like a whole turkey before bed, right? So supplementing is ideal. L- tryptophan will help gently induce sleep. Plus, unlike many drugs, it won‘t cause morning-after fogginess. That said, unfortunately, if you suffer from lactose intolerance, you may have trouble absorbing l-tryptophan. So if that‘s the case, stick to the other options.

4. I‘ve also seen excellent results using melatonin supplements. Just beware, melatonin is a hormone. So I don‘t recommend taking it if you‘re younger than 40. But as we get older, our melatonin production slows down so there‘s less of a chance of you getting "too much" by taking it as a supplement.

Go for the smallest dose to start: 1.5 mg at bedtime for ages 40 to 50 or 3 mg for people over the age of 50. With higher dosages, you might wake up drowsy. If that‘s the case, you know you‘ve taken too much.

5. After a certain age, many of us wake up every night to visit the bathroom. If you want to get ahead of the curve and support healthy bladder function now, there‘s a plant extract call three-leaf caper that just might help. Used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, three-leaf caper strengthens and tones the bladder wall so it can empty more fully.

Just remember, when you sleep it‘s your body‘s time to refresh and reboot. It‘s vital for your overall health. So if you‘re not getting enough restful z‘s, give one of these natural sleep aids a try and try to avoid sedative hypnotic drugs.