May 2009

A Wolf In Sleep’s Clothing: The Truth About Sleeping Pills

may09_wolf1Prescriptions for hypnotics, or so-called sleeping pills, exceeded 56 million in 2008, representing a record 54% increase in just four years. The term hypnotic, like hypnosis, is derived from Hypnos, the sweet-natured Greek god of sleep. Hypnosis, however, is not about sleep. It is, in fact, a heightened state of waking consciousness. Hypnosis derived its name from Hypnos simply because hypnotized people look like they are asleep. But they are not.

The same can be said of people on hypnotics. They just look like they’re asleep. I think Hypnos would turn over in his grave because the drugs that are his namesake do not provide true sleep. At best, they produce a kind of faux sleep — a chemical knock out with potentially serious health consequences.

The dramatic increase in sales of hypnotics is associated with an unprecedented and highly sophisticated direct-to-consumer marketing campaign designed to address long-standing consumer wariness.
The hypnotics market tanked in 1973 following the death of Elvis Presley from a drug cocktail that included potent hypnotics. Consumers had a rude awakening: if these pills could take out “the King,” they were, in fact, a wolf in sleep’s clothing.

Newer sleeping pills are not as dangerous as the one’s in Elvis’ day, but neither are they as “safe and effective” as we are led to believe. And newer marketing campaigns have worked diligently to modify our negative associations with sleeping pills. Their well-crafted ads now present hypnotics in lighthearted and even spiritual contexts.

What’s the Truth?

Sleeping pills commonly result in dependence. They can alter normal sleep architecture, cause amnesia, daytime hangovers and significant rebound insomnia upon discontinuation. Recent research found that on a whole, sleeping pills are not nearly as effective as many have believed. Sleeping pills do not significantly improve sleep, but mask our experience of poor sleep.

Masking the symptoms of insomnia does not constitute good sleep any more than masking the symptoms of anxiety with alcohol provides good mental health. Perhaps most alarming, evidence suggests that chronic sleeping pill use may be associated with increased mortality.
Hypnotics are the fast food equivalent of sleep. They provide a much less nourishing and potentially health-eroding substitute for the real thing.

There certainly may be times when we feel a need to take something to sleep. There are a number of truly safe and effective natural alternatives like valerian, melatonin, hops and skullcap that deserve consideration. Whatever we might choose to take, it is essential that we do so as part of a more comprehensive, personalized sleep health promotion program.

Hypnos is calling for resurrection. The son of Nyx, the mighty Greek goddess of night, would remind us that sleep is born of night. Research has confirmed that exposure to night — to dusk and darkness — is a critical factor in healthy sleep.

Our inclination to take something to sleep must be tempered with a psychological practice of letting go of something to sleep. To awaken from our sleeping pill trance, I believe we must carefully reconsider the critical role of night, dusk and darkness as a natural medium for letting go. Straight up, in its undiluted form, even with long-term use, night itself may be the best hypnotic.

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