Profits made from Americans’ lack of sleep are predicted to continue. A recent report by Marketdata Enterprises Inc estimates 8.8% average annual gains for the sleep market from 2009 through 2012, which includes the over-the-counter (OTC) drug segment. As prevalence of OTC sleep aids escalates and as health care costs soar, will troubled sleepers be more inclined to self-medicate? New research says it is not only likely to happen but is already transpiring.

According to a new report by Kalorama Information, “World OTC Pharmaceutical Markets: Self-Medication, Developing and Petro-Rich Economies, BTC and Other Growth Trends,” consumers are taking an increasingly active role in self-medication, due to rising health care costs, a large uninsured population, and ever more choices in OTC products. Purchasing OTC drugs is also more convenient, and money is saved by avoiding visits to physician’s offices. Ultimately, purchasing OTC drugs saves US consumers around $15 billion annually, information from the report finds.

Saving money has its perks, but it often comes with a price. Many OTC sleep aids have not been lab tested, and they are not inspected as thoroughly as prescription drugs. Therefore, side effects and accuracy of manufacturers’ claims cannot be absolutely ascertained. A recent scare in Canada involving Sleep Ease Dietary Supplement illustrates the point: Sleep Ease was advertised as an herbal natural health product designed to relieve sleeping difficulty and restless legs syndrome. The product contained an undeclared drug—estazolam—which can be habit-forming when used for as little as a few months. Due to the addiction potential of the capsules, Health Canada issued a warning to consumers about the dangers of the supplement and asked those who bought the product to return it.

Online Poll: How likely is it that the trend of self-medicating with OTC sleep aids will impact the number of patients seen at your lab?

“While [self-medicating] is not the optimal method of treatment, and could lead to complications and undiagnosed conditions, it is nonetheless an important factor driving sales,” says Kalorama analyst Melissa Elder. “The state of the economy, lifestyle, culture, the time it takes to see a doctor, and the condition of medical care all contribute to people seeking to self-medicate.”

The risk for consumers is cause for concern but not the only reason for unease. The rise in self-medicating could potentially have negative repercussions for sleep lab business. If consumers are actively self-medicating, it could mean that they are choosing an “alternative” to undergoing evaluation at a sleep center.

The trend of self-medicating is also good reason for the sleep community to be cognizant of the sleep-disorder awareness message that is steadily making its way into media reports. These days, people are becoming ever more aware of the health problems associated with lack of sleep, but is it clear what they should do if they continually find themselves sleep-deprived? Is seeing a physician recommended or is there a quick-fix OTC? Organizations like the National Sleep Foundation are doing a good job at relaying the complete message of the risks of sleep deprivation and the need to see a physician. You can do your part as well. As an advocate for sleep-disorder awareness, be sure that the message you relay to your community is comprehensive and that the call to action leads your audience in the right direction.

—Franklin A. Holman
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