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Dangers of Sleep Aids: Why They Do More Harm Than Good

Dangers of Sleep Aids: Why They Do More Harm Than Good

Tuesday, 07 August 2018 11:15 AM

If you adhere to the go-getter maxim “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” you do so at your peril, according to Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a sleep expert at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

Short or disrupted sleep can lead to a host of problems including:

  • Weight gain and metabolic syndrome.
  • Diabetes and heart disease.
  • Impaired immunity and infectious diseases.
  • Cancer.
  • Reduced motor skill function and an increased risk of accidents.

Worst of all, getting less than the recommended seven-to-eight hours of shut-eye per night can lead to premature death.

“We are all becoming more sleep-deprived, meaning that the total sleep time has been decreasing for decades,” Dasgupta said.

An astounding 60 percent of American adults report that they experience disrupted or unrefreshing sleepevery night or almost every night, according to a recent survey. To cope, many respondents report that they resort to strategies such as excessive caffeine consumption, daytime naps, and nighttime sleep medications.

Although sleep medications can promote sleep, they’re a “double-edged sword,” said Dasgupta.

Many of the most common prescription and over-the-counter sleep medications have been linked to cognitive decline, brain shrinkage, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

These include prescription benzodiazepines such as Xanax (alprazolam) and traditional tricyclic antidepressants such as Elavil (amitriptyline). Alarming recent research suggests that antihistamines such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine), which are often found in over-the-counter sleep medications, also are associated with such effects, particularly in middle-aged and older people.

That’s because such drugs can deplete the brain’s supply of an essential neurotransmitter: acetylcholine. That’s why they’re collectively referred to as anti-cholinergic drugs. One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is a deficiency of acetylcholine.

Anti-cholinergic drugs also can affect speech, gastrointestinal health, and sexual health.

In most studies, high doses of such drugs are associated with the worst side effects, which generally occur after about three years. “Most medications are not intended for life-long use,” explained Dasgupta. “The goal is to try to get down to the lowest possible dose or not use any medication at all.”

The picture is more complicated with melatonin, a popular over-the-counter dietary supplement that contains a hormone naturally released by the body in preparation for sleep. Although melatonin supplements have no anti-cholinergic effects, studies show mixed results on their ability to promote sleep. There is no data showing the optimal dose, time of administration, or long-term safety.

“Like any medication, you don’t want to be on it long-term,” said Dasgupta.

Non-drug remedies are best for promoting good sleep, he explains. These include well-researched strategies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which aims to establish good sleep hygiene.

Elements of good sleep hygiene include:

  • Reserving your bed for sleep and sex.
  • Having a set bedtime and wake time.
  • Avoiding daytime naps longer than 15-20 minutes.
  • Avoiding eating or drinking anything – particularly caffeinated or alcoholic beverages – in the hours before bedtime.
  • Winding down with low-intensity activities immediately before bedtime.

Unfortunately, the growing bedtime use of electronic devices such as TVs, computers, cellphones, and iPads has proved to be an efficient sleep robber. That’s because such devices emit high amounts of blue light – equivalent to sunlight – which impedes the body’s natural ability to produce melatonin.

It’s now possible to install apps on your devices that automatically filter blue light later in the evening. In theory, that should allow you to safely watch TV, surf the Internet, communicate on your cellphone, play video games, and read Kindle books.

Although blue-light filters can help, Dasgupta warns that they should not be viewed as a “green light” to indulge in stimulating activities before bedtime, especially if you’re doing so in bed.

“You don’t want to be stimulated,” he explains. “You want to transition into sleep. Read a traditional book.”

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If you adhere to the go-getter maxim "I'll sleep when I'm dead," you do so at your peril, according to Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a sleep expert at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.Short or disrupted sleep can lead to a host of problems...
sleep aids, insomnia, sleeping pills, drugs
Tuesday, 07 August 2018 11:15 AM
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