How seeking some shut-eye could kill you

You're a responsible adult. You'd never down a few glasses of wine and get behind the wheel of your car. Tossing back a couple of shots and going for a drive would be unthinkable. Yet, shockingly, you could still be driving under the influence, high as a kite, with no clue that it's even happening, according to new evidence of sleeping pill side effects.

As bizarre as it sounds, if you're one of the more than 56 million Americans taking a prescription sleep drug, this frightening scenario could be all too real.

It turns out that simply by taking your sleep aid as prescribed at night and then driving to work the next morning you could be putting your life, and the lives of others, at grave risk. And for women, the threat of sleeping pill side effects is even higher.

In fact, the danger's so real that in a rare move the FDA has issued a warning and is requiring the manufacturers of some popular sleep drugs to slash their recommended dosage of 10 mg (12.5 mg for extended release versions) for women in half.

And although most men tend to metabolize the drug faster—so the next-morning sleeping pill side effects are not as much of a threat—the FDA is strongly recommending that doctors consider lowering the dosages for them too. They're even requiring the drug manufacturers to add this recommendation to the drug labeling.

Perhaps most shocking of all is that this drug isn't a newcomer to the table either. Not by far. In fact, it's been on the market for 20 years! That means that drugged drivers flying high on sleeping pills is not a new problem, it just took the FDA this long to do anything about it. (Why am I not surprised?)

And while you probably don't recognize the generic name zolpidem, you're sure to know at least one of the popular sleep products this strong sedative is featured in, which include Ambien, Intermezzo, Edluar, and Zolpimist.

Sleep-drug side effects

Of course the potential dangers from sleeping pill side effects don't stop with driving high. These drugs increase your risk for taking a tumble. In fact, one study, published last year in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, found that zolpidem increased the fall risk for healthy adults by 27 percent.

The news was worse for older adults. Their fall risk shot up by 58 percent in the same study. And you don't need me to tell you that a fall in your golden years can be a disaster that ends up with you in the hospital, or worse. (But if you do end up there look out, because sleeping pills are associated with falls there, too.)

Sleeping pills have also been linked to eating, sex, and even driving, all while still, technically, sound asleep.

And while falls and strange sleep walking episodes are bad, they aren't even the worst of it. Not by a long shot. As I reported last year, if you're a senior, taking certain sleep drugs can cause your risk of dementia to skyrocket by a staggering 50 percent!

An earlier study found that sedative users have a 36 percent greater risk of dying. And just last year the news got even worse when a study published in the journal BMJ Open found a link between certain prescription sleep drugs, (all the biggies were represented Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, and Restoril) and an early death.

Heavy users of the drugs were five times more likely to die early. Light users didn't fare much better. At around just 18 pills a year occasional sleeping pill users were three and half times more likely to die prematurely than non-users.

Get your zzz's naturally

Of course the best way to avoid all of these terrible, and even deadly, sleeping pill side effects is to 'just say no' to your drug-pushing doc, when he tries to write you a prescription for a sleep aid. But when you're suffering with insomnia, and desperate for some shut-eye, I know that's hard to do. Trust me, I've been there.

But the good news is that there are good alternatives to those heavy-duty prescription drugs. Starting with the most obvious one...and the one that also happens to be the most overlooked... and that's eliminating stimulants from your diet.

Sure, most of us who suffer with insomnia from time to time already know that we should cut out caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, and soda. However, you should also take a look at the supplements you're taking. If taken right before bed, certain stimulants like ginseng, B12, and milk thistle can keep you from falling to sleep.

Next make your bedroom sleep friendly by moving the TV out and banning brain stimulating back-lit devices like iPads for at least two hours before turning in. For some people a white-noise machine that lets you fall asleep to nature sounds, such as gentle rain or ocean waves, can be very helpful.

If you find that you're still having trouble getting to sleep after that, many people find that l-tryptophan, GABA, or the hormone melatonin works for them. A doctor skilled in natural medicine can help you decide which combination of natural sleep supplements will work best for you.

And if anxiety is at the root of your sleepless nights, magnesium, red clover, or...believe it or not...a probiotic may be all it takes to help ease you off to la-la land.