Pills will never bring us the sleep we crave

Janice Turner

The Times

Modern life has become a toxic mix of exhaustion, over-medication and brains hardwired to new technology.

Gerry Gajadharsingh writes:

“Sleep is a habit, a good one that has immense benefits to health, we muck around with it at our peril.

The article states that Industrialised nations have decimated the very thing that maximises our creativity, energy and intelligence, which guards against disease, lifts our dark moods, makes us look our best. Two thirds of adults in developed nations fail to get the recommended nightly eight hours. The NHS spends £50 million a year on sleeping-pill prescriptions but the total economic effect of sleep loss, says Walker, is more than £30 billion in lost revenue a year.

Prof Walker the neuroscientist flags up the correlation between lack of sleep and obesity since the 1950’s in the USA. Did you know that we lose most weight when we sleep?

I am known for liking a good nap (when I get a chance), they tend to take place at weekends and it is my method for recovery after a long week with not enough sleep due to long working hours, I spend at least as much time on patient admin as I do actually seeing patients!

I used to feel guilty but have learnt that it is a necessity to support my health. It has taken many years to convince my wife that it’s OK for her to nap as well at weekends!

I tend to agree with all of the comments below, but I would add the technique of breathing re-education as a way of calming the mind. Ideally one would breathe in a relaxed way most of the time but even using relaxed breathing for 15 minutes before you go to sleep, in addition to all the suggestions below may help you restore what was once an easy habit.”

Sominex, Unisom, Walsom, Sleep Well, Simply Sleep, Dream Water . . . The full strangeness of America is evident not just in its gun laws but its drug stores. Shelf after shelf of medicines to bring insomniacs artificial rest and then, right beside them, Stay Awake (Maximum Strength). Sedate, caffeinate. Repeat.

I am browsing this Duane Reade pharmacy on Sixth Avenue because friends have asked me to bring back supplies. Sleep remedies that can be bought over-the-counter in America are prescription-only in Britain. So here I am, a dealer in dreams. I buy scores of blue tablets, enough to kill a horse, a whole cavalry regiment, yet the cashier rings them up without a word.

America has faith in modernity, science, progress, in not enduring problems when a quick solution can be bought (and a buck made). Medicate, don’t tolerate. Every American I know has a favourite brand of sleeping med. And those I’m buying aren’t even the hard stuff. More than 60 million prescriptions for heavier-duty drugs such as Ambien are signed in the US every year, regardless of the side-effects from cancer to crashing your car. Britain, as my friends’ instructions show, is heading the same way.

However wired and tired, I cannot take these pills. I come round, dry-mouthed, my brain at 10,000 fathoms, from a chemical coma with no relation to real sleep. But then I’m not a proper insomniac, just an occasional anxious 4am waker. Friends who never get more than four hours at a stretch would lose their jobs, their sanity, if they couldn’t reach for oblivion in a jar. And some of it is middle age: that lush, careless youthful abandon is exchanged for a brittle, turbulent night. Nature, you bastard, why wasn’t I this alert at 5am when I had young kids?

But mainly our insomnia is of our own stupid making. A new book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, neuroscience professor at Berkeley, California, is an angry attack on our health-destroying habits. Instead of the gaffer tape of pills, we should fix our wakeful lives. Industrialised nations have decimated the very thing that maximises our creativity, energy and intelligence, which guards against disease, lifts our dark moods, makes us look our best. Two thirds of adults in developed nations fail to get the recommended nightly eight hours. The NHS spends £50 million a year on sleeping-pill prescriptions but the total economic effect of sleep loss, says Walker, is more than £30 billion in lost revenue a year.

Modernity electrified the night, then the internet made the everlasting work-day. Bedtime is no longer a few pages of a novel, a yawn, then out goes the light. It is a checking Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, then Twitter again one last time. Oh, there’s a text, better reply; a notification of breaking news, a funny video clip. Now I’ll scroll through those podcasts to find something calming. The little blue screens that light up our brains destroy the production of melatonin we need to sleep, yet we prefer the dopamine hit we get from each Facebook “like”.

Lack of sleep, Walker says, is the source of most modern ills. He has a graph from 1950 to the present where the US obesity rate rises in an exponential curve while the sleep enjoyed by the average adult descends from nine hours to six and a half. Sleeplessness makes us crave sugar and carbs: on my jetlagged New York trip I’ve lived on pizza and brownies. For the habitually sleepless it can become a permanent diet.

Such adult habits have made us careless about our children’s sleep. A 2011 survey revealed that English school kids get the least sleep of any in Europe. Could a recent report that a third of teenage girls have mental health problems not, in part, be due to all-night social media scanning? No device for at least the last hour before bed, orders Walker. Yet go into any child’s room and they are fiddling with an iPad until it is removed from their screaming grasp.

Since I last wrangled toddlers, a child-centred parenting has emerged: bedtime by consent rather than, “Up those stairs, now!” Plus a yearning for parents working long hours to see their kids, however tired.

Underlying all this is a deep societal disdain for sleep. It’s for the weak, for losers, it can wait until we have nothing better in our lives, when we are, as Yeats wrote “old and grey and full of sleep, and nodding by the fire”. Throwing an all-nighter is a sign of corporate machismo. Order a takeaway, pore over documents long after they’ve stopped making sense. Bowie tried to dispense with sleep entirely during his Berlin drug days yet he spoke later of his paranoiac jabbering: “There were pieces of me all over the floor.”

Walker notes that the two politicians who boasted about getting by on four to five hours, Thatcher and Reagan, both died of Alzheimer’s, now linked to long-term sleep deprivation.

President Trump tweets all night. Watch on YouTube a 1990s interview he gave to Oprah Winfrey: his speech is fluent, his vocabulary is broad. Now, as Alec Baldwin who plays him on Saturday Night Live says, Trump is forever pausing to dig down for a better word, but his brain manages only to retrieve “great” or “very bad”.

When a politician is spotted nodding off in parliament or at party conference, we mock. Rather, we should worry that we are governed by those whose schedules render them unfit to govern. We all need to put down our devices, calm our minds, take a nap, find our way back to our animal rhythms. Not reach for more pills.

 

2017-10-07T21:05:46+00:00