I’ve struggled to get a good night of sleep for as long as I can remember. Even when I was young, I woke easily to the slightest noises. The situation worsened when I became a new mother, and then worsened still when I become chronically ill. Sleep became, for me, a most unreliable companion : never there when I needed her, and yet obsessively clingy when I was busy and didn’t have the time.
For years, my mother has urged me to take sleeping pills, as she herself has done in the past, but I found I didn’t like them. They always made me feel so groggy and lethargic the next morning that I questioned whether the extra sleep was worth it. I also knew that they didn’t address the underlying problem – the reason I couldn’t sleep in the first place. They just artificially knocked me out.
A new, 2018 reviewof sleep medication is now providing me with even more reasons to avoid them. It found that those who use sleep medication tend to struggle with « complex sleep behaviours », meaning they unknowingly engaged in dangerous activities while still asleep. For example, some users drove a car while still asleep, some cooked on a stove, others fell while sleep-walking, or nearly drowned, while others accidentally shot themselves with a gun. Most disturbingly, users did not remember these events when they awoke. It seems that increased grogginess with the use of sleep medication is more common and more severe than I once thought!
Because of the increased risk of injury and death with the use of sleep medication, the FDA will now be adding new, boxed warnings to their packaging, as well as a worded contraindication. People who have experienced « complex sleep behaviours » in the past will be told to avoid the drugs. But should anyone really be using them? In the report, it wasn’t just long-term users of sleeping pills who risked injury and death. Even occasional, or first-time users could injure themselves or cause serious harm to others when they took them.
According to Jerome Siegel, a sleep researcher at UCLA, it’s debatable that sleeping pills really help anyone anyway. A study released in 2007 found that sleeping pills increased sleep time by only 11 minutes per night. That’s not a lot of increased rest, considering the side effects that often go with their use, like dizziness, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and allergic reactions. People also don’t tend to take these drugs seriously, and regularly ingest them along with alcohol or other prescription drugs, which can cause serious negative interactions. Sleeping pills can also create dependency, where you can no longer fall asleep without them. Additionally, addiction centres warn that some users can suffer from withdrawal effects.
Instead of hoping for a quick fix with a pill, sleep experts recommend you improve your sleep hygiene first, well before resorting to drugs, if you use them at all. They suggest that you avoid drinking caffeinated and carbonated beverages late in the day, and remove distracting devices from your bedroom, like your cellphone or tablet. Try to exercise daily, but don’t do it late at night or it can keep you awake rather than make you more drowsy. Also, keep your bedroom cool and dark, to more closely mimic the natural night environment. I find that an evening bath also helps. Not only is the warm water relaxing, but as I leave the tub and my body temperature cools, I find I can drift off more easily.
If you’ve already done as much as you can and you still can’t sleep, consider taking natural products to induce sleep. Some people swear by melatonin, and natural valerian root is another good option. I personally find that shou wu vine (ye jiao teng) works best for me, relaxing me almost immediately and keeping me asleep all night. Others use our Coptis tincture at night to knock themselves out.
I know I’m not alone. According to the CDC, 4% of US adults, or 10 million people, take prescription medication to help them sleep, spending $2 billion a year to help them get adequate rest. It’s an epidemic. I wonder how long it will take for us to realize that we’re slowly killing ourselves with over-stimulation and excess stress. I wonder if it’s even possible for us to change. The immediacy of our environment is too pleasurable and addictive.
As an unusually sensitive sleeper, I consider myself a canary in the coal-mine of modern life. Just know that when the day should come that you too begin to struggle with sleeplessness, there are those, like me, who have paved the way before you.About the author: Rebecca Wong has an honours degree in English Literature from the University of Waterloo, and has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.