Sleep is finally revealing its secrets and they are proving more sensational than we ever dreamt. Sleep, that part of human functioning we treat with such contempt and distain, might be a means of improving many aspects of our lives particularly our health. Sleep, of sufficient quality and quantity, is offering a panacea for a range of medical conditions plaguing modern life. But will we listen? We; fail to take enough exercise, eat too much poor quality foods; sustain bodies that are over-weight or obese and smoke tobacco in spite of convincing evidence that we should do none of these things. Will the call to take, every night, a minimum eight hours of rejuvenating peaceful sleep be viewed as yet another patronising rant and prove too much effort? Yes, it will take effort to make a poor sleeper into a sleeping beauty but Arianna Huffington has published a reasonable self-help book “The Sleep Revolution”. We are mainly the authors of our own insomnias.
Sleep became a nuisance around 1900 when the Industrial Revolution met the electric light-bulb. From that point on, with no imposed darkness in our days, sleep was for the weak and timid. Socially and economically sleep was seen as an imposition and heroes were those who claimed they needed little if any. Sleep deprivation -getting only 6 or 7 hours of sleep a night – is pretty toxic across a range of measures. We are more likely to develop; dementia, diabetes, heart disease and cancers, the list of linked diseases is rather impressive. Margaret Thatcher and Ronnie Regan both shunned sleep and both succumb to severely demented ends. Sleep deprivations has a huge impact on our mental health with a link to depression and more serious conditions such as bipolar and schizophrenia. It also affects our wake-time functioning with an estimated 100,000 US road traffic deaths linked to poor sleep and then there’s industrial accidents such as the Space Shuttle Disaster and Chernobyl where the link has been proven.
Sadly when sleep is poor or inadequate -mainly due to lifestyle – we suffer through our days dazed, confused and exhausted or we opt for sleeping pills. Recent findings cry out that we shouldn’t use sleeping pills because of the simple fact they kill us.
Chronic insomnia is a serious condition that needs treatment that is not in dispute. Its long-term consequences are well recognised but most sleep experts agree that sleeping pill, certainly for long-term use, is just silly and dangerous. A series of studies covered in a number of books on sleep such as Martin Walker’s excellent book “Why We Sleep”, outlines the consequences of long-term sleeping pill use. GPs get this and are battling hard to reduce the dependence on sleeping aids and they would be helped by better public awareness and understanding.
The problem with sleeping pills – and I include those sold over the counter as Nytol and Sominex – is they do not do what they say on the tin; they don’t make us sleep; they knock us out and during this time we are technically unconscious such as when anesthetised. For this reason sleeping pills alter the natural four stage sleep cycle that happens about five times a night and ensures tip-top mental and physical function. People who use sleeping pills long-term die earlier and the most common cause of death is surprisingly serious infection. When first noted this association seemed implausible and then, as more and more evidence emerged, it was recognised that the four cycle, five stages of human sleep rejuvenates the immune system. In sleeping pill users the immune system is shot to pieces.
We all need to improve our sleep and that will take some time. The first step is to recognise that there is a real public health danger from long-term sleeping pill use. We need better access to support so that poor sleepers and insomniacs can make meaningful changes to their lifestyles; no devices in the bedroom, reduce lighting and less stress. The benefits will be huge; how could it not be good when society is; less grumpy, self-centred and unreasonable which we will be if we learn, again, how to have a good night’s sleep.
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.