Arianna Huffington author of The Sleep RevolutionNovember 2016
By Garry Messick
Doctors say getting a solid night’s sleep is an important component of maintaining good health. Your body restores its immune system during sleep, and insufficient sleep has been linked to a number of serious health woes, including heart disease, diabetes, being overweight, problems with memory and fuzzy thinking as well as lower levels of testosterone in men.
Writer Arianna Huffington, the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the popular news website The Huffington Post, believes we’re in the midst of a sleep-deficit crisis, something she knows about from personal experience. Beginning in her years as a college student, Arianna says she bought into “the prevalent cultural norm of sleep deprivation as essential to achievement and success.” She continued on this dangerous path for years, pushing herself to get by on just three or four hours of sleep a night, until eventually, in April 2007, she collapsed from “sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and burnout.”
After learning her lesson, and seeing that too many people suffer from lack of sleep in today’s fast-paced, stress-filled world, Arianna felt moved to write The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.
In this interview with Life Extension®, Huffington discusses the importance of getting quality sleep, as well as the detrimental effects of sleeping pills.
LE: Just how dangerous is lack of sleep?
AH: The incidence of death from all causes goes up by 15% when we sleep five hours or less per night. A 2015 CNN.com article based on the latest findings by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, provocatively titled “Sleep or Die,” discussed the connection between lack of sleep and an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. In other words, getting enough sleep really is a matter of life and death.
LE: What about the effects of lack of sleep on behavior and mental ability?
AH: Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital examined the effects of sleep deprivation on nearly 3,000 first-year (medical school) residents. The number of hours an intern may work per week is capped at 80 hours, but individual shifts can run more than 24 hours. They found that in months when interns worked five or more shifts longer than 24 hours, “fatigue-related adverse events” increased by 700% and “fatigue-related adverse events” resulting in patient death increased by 300%. An Australian study found that after being awake for 17 to 19 hours (a normal day for many of us!), we can experience levels of cognitive impairment equal to having a blood alcohol level of .05% (just under the legal limit in many US states). And if we’re awake just a few hours more, we’re up to the equivalent of 0.1%—legally drunk.
LE: How common is the use of prescription sleeping pills?
AH: In the United States, more than 55 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were written just in 2014, with sales topping $1 billion. A 2013 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report stated that 9 million Americans—4% of all adults—use prescription sleeping pills. I asked several sleep experts what they thought of the 4% number from the CDC, and the general conclusion was that the survey number involved significant underreporting. A National Sleep Foundation poll found startlingly high rates of sleep-aid usage among women, with 29% reporting that they use a sleep aid of some kind at least a few nights a week. A survey by Parade magazine of more than 15,000 people found that 23% of respondents took sleeping pills once a week and 14% took them every night.
LE: What are the most popular sleeping pills used today?
AH: The most common pharmaceutical weapon we use to knock ourselves out is the drug zolpidem, which you probably know as Ambien. It accounts for more than two-thirds of the sleeping pills sold in the United States. Zolpidem is part of a class of drugs known as hypnotics, which work to induce and lengthen the duration of sleep. Lunesta, another hypnotic, marketed with a seductive green butterfly logo, had more than $350 million in sales in the United States in 2014, and that figure does not include the generic version, eszopiclone, which generated another $43 million.
LE: How effective are these drugs? Are they actually helpful?
AH: When you hear the stories of people who have become dependent on sleeping pills, you realize they shouldn’t be called sleeping pills at all. Because we now know that simply not being awake doesn’t necessarily mean you’re actually asleep.
Harvard Medical School professor Patrick Fuller explained to me the difference between natural sleep and drug-induced sleep. Sleeping pills typically target only one of the many different chemical systems used by the brain as part of the sleep process, which “necessarily produces an imbalance in the chemical signaling by which the brain achieves normal sleep and may limit restorative slow-wave sleep. The newer drugs like Ambien produce more naturalistic sleep but can have side effects, albeit rarely, like sleep eating and sleepwalking, which by definition are not part of normal sleep behavior.”
This limbo state, when we are not really awake but not really asleep, can result in behaviors ranging from the harmless and humorous to the disturbing and dangerous. And part of the danger is that you will more than likely have no memory of whatever you do.
LE: Are there any long-term hazards involved with sleeping pills?
AH: Researchers from the University of Montreal and the University of Bordeaux discovered that the use of benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Restoril, usually taken for anxiety or as a sleep aid, increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 32% after being used for three to six months. Taking these drugs for more than six months raises the risk by 84%.
LE: What about people who are just occasional users?
AH: One study from the Scripps Research Institute led by Dr. Daniel Kripke compared data from a sample group of more than 10,000 people taking sleeping pills, including zolpidem (Ambien) and temazepam (Restoril), with a control group of more than 23,000 not taking sleeping pills. Researchers found that those prescribed as few as 18 doses of sleeping pills a year had a three-times-higher risk of death during the study’s two-and-a-half-year follow-up period than their counterparts in the control group, “with greater mortality associated with greater dosage prescribed.” Furthermore, those taking the highest dosage of sleeping pills (more than 132 doses per year) had a 35% increased risk of cancer—including lung, lymphoma, prostate, and colon cancers.
LE: Can you discuss some natural sleep-aid supplements that you would recommend?
AH: Those who want to explore herbal sleep aids—and especially those who want to wean themselves off sleeping pills—have many options to consider. Valerian root, for example, is a natural sedative whose use dates back to ancient Greece, where Hippocrates prescribed it in the fourth century B.C. In recent years, its effectiveness has been supported by research. In addition to valerian root, Dr. Frank Lipman, founder of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York, also recommends other nutrients that can improve sleep, including gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA (a naturally occurring chemical that dampens brain activity), and L-theanine (an amino acid found in green tea leaves that induces brain waves connected to relaxation).
LE: What is the most widely-used natural sleep aid today?
AH: One of the most popular herbs for sleep is lavender, which has been used throughout history for healing and relaxation. The Greek physician Dioscorides wrote about lavender’s many medicinal benefits as early as the first century. The herb was a staple of Greek and Roman baths, and in ancient Egypt it was frequently used for incense. And again, there is scientific evidence to support what the ancients knew. A Thai study found that smelling lavender helps us relax by slowing down our heart rate, decreasing our blood pressure, and lowering skin temperature. Other studies have found sleep quality improved in a room scented with lavender or when lavender oil was sprinkled on pajamas or pillows. And in Germany, lavender tea has been approved by their equivalent of the FDA as a treatment for insomnia.
LE: Lastly, do you have a bedtime routine that helps you get a good night’s sleep?
AH: I treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. Before bed, I take a hot bath with Epsom salts and a candle flickering nearby—a bath that I prolong if I’m feeling anxious or worried about something. I don’t sleep in my workout clothes as I used to (think of the mixed message that sends to our brains) but have pajamas, nightdresses, even T-shirts dedicated to sleep. Sometimes I have a cup of chamomile or lavender tea if I want something warm and comforting before going to bed. Think of each stage as designed to help you shed more of your daytime worries.
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