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Ditch the Drugs: 10 Steps Toward Sweeter Sleep

20 J0000004UTC 2011

The brain is a tricky, complex organ. How sleep and stress affect the brain makes it trickier and more complex. Humans will do almost anything to get a good night’s sleep and, when we don’t, we become crazy. Culture and technology tamper with sleep and stress so that, restless and frustrated, we turn to docs and prep to pop pills. The pharmaceutical industry has answered in force. Puffy sheep and delicate moths beckon you to your pillow, promising deeper, more satisfying sleep without telling you the rest of the bedtime story.

A recently-released research study from the Scripps Sleep Clinic in La Jolla, CA tells the story instead.

The author of the study, Dr. Daniel Kripke, presents a shockingly high correlation between sleep medication usage [Ambien (Zolpidem), Restoril (Temazepam), Lunesta (Eszopiclone) and Sonata (Zaleplon)] and an increased risk of both mortality and certain types of cancer. These sedatives/hypnotics/benzodiazapines act on the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain to help calm anxiety and induce sleep.

This study was big. Over 3 1/2 years it included 10,500 people on sleeping pills for an average of 2 1/2 years and 23,600 people not on sleeping pills with an average age of 54, the youngest being 18. Adjustments were made for age, smoking, heath conditions and obesity. If one took 1-18 doses of sleep meds, there was a 3.6x greater risk of mortality ; 18-132 doses, 4x greater risk; >132 doses, 5x greater risk. Also, with the >132 doses, incidence of esophageal, lymph, lung, colon and prostate cancers went up by 35%. It is important to note that only correlation can be proven, not causality.

The first wave of responses supported the drugs, their prescribing doctors, and their “correct” usage. The blame for the increased mortality and cancer was placed on the assumption that the people seeking out sleep meds must have underlying medical issues such as heart disease or burgeoning cancer. The problem with this is that both age and health conditions in the drug users and non-drug users were carefully matched in those conducting the study, giving as much control to the pool as possible. And remember that even those using sedatives 18 times or less still had a marked increase in mortality.

The main conclusion I draw is that we the people are stressed out to the max. There’s been a 23% increase in the usage of prescription sleep medications from 2006 to 2010, not including over the counter or natural remedies. When we are anxious and stressed relaxed breathing and good sleep are the first things to go. When breath is shallow and sleep is disrupted, the immune system’s ability to fight disease decreases markedly. It is not surprising that those who sleep poorly and seek prescription medication for it are also ill and prone to dying earlier. So, whether it is the medication itself or the need for the medication, we in a dangerous position due to stress and anxiety– the biggest culprits of poor sleep.

What do you do if you want to ditch the drugs? First off, don’t do that yourself; talk to your prescribing doctor and come up with a safe plan for leaving the pills behind. Some sleep meds are habit forming and though you may have been a user for a long time, they are designed for only temporary or short-term usage. If you want to be an un-user, beware before embarking on your new journey to new and improved sleep.

Here’s 10 sleep hygiene tips to help you toward sweeter sleep.

1. Black Out. “Understanding how to use the circadian rhythm is a very powerful tool that doesn’t require a prescription,” says Dr. Lawrence E. Kline, co-author of above study. Total darkness, bat-cave blackness, triggers the production of melatonin in the brain. This is the “sleep hormone” in which most people are deficient. Blacking out your room with opaque curtains, removing alarm clocks, covering the tiny light on the fire alarm, and using a sleep mask gives your brain the extra melatonin boost it needs for good sleep.

2. Chill Your Brain. Keep your sleep space cool. The body temperature drops by about 1 1/2 degrees during sleep and it’s important to facilitate that change by not overheating with the down comforter or the pajamagram your mom sent. Warm up before you get in bed and let your body heat (or your partner’s) do the rest. When the brain is cool, it and your dreams are calmer.

3. Put Out Blue Light. Back in the day, when the sun went down, the light went out. At best there was a candle or lantern for the trip to the outhouse, barn, or bed. With the Industrial Revolution came electricity, then Atari, then the internet, then we lost our minds and our sleep. Our circadian rhythms unhinged further with the introduction of the blue light emitting from our flat screens, iPhones and laptops. Two hours before your projected bedtime, power down. Keeping blue light out of your eyes relaxes your brain, allowing melatonin to prepare you for sleep. I know it’s hard, but Angry Birds will be there tomorrow.

4. Farewell, Fuzzy Friends. Squirrel-chasing dreams, nest preparation, and critters curling up in your crotch are only a few ways that animals disrupt sleep. When my dog Arco used to approach the bedside and plop his harp seal nose next to my pillow, I would melt. Then scratch his head. Then get up to let him out. Then go into the bathroom and turn on the light to pee. Then go get a drink. Then go to the back door and call to get him back in. Then he would make a scratchy nest and plop down with a thud. Then he would woof while dreaming about squirrels. This is not good sleep. Buy your dogs and cats really nice beds so you don’t feel guilty about shutting them out of your bedroom. Really, it’s okay.

5. Belly Breathe. Deep breathing helps send oxygenated blood to all your organs, and your brain hogs most of it. This has a deeply calming effect and is great preparation for sleep. It increases immune function, improves digestion, releases tension and anxiety, improves cellular function, and helps rid the body of toxins. Lie on your back in bed and take 5-10 slow, deep breaths, expanding your belly so that it look like a basketball. Be sure to release all the air fully through your mouth. Clear your mind as much as possible or, if you have one, go to your happy place.

6. Drinks All Around. It sucks, but alcohol makes for bad sleep. It seems like a fine idea and that it’s making your tired, lethargic, and ready for bed (especially red wine, ladies), but really it is stimulating the brain in a sleep-preventative way. Remember, passing out is not the same as a good night’s sleep. Drink earlier in the evening, decrease the number of drinks, or drink fewer nights a week. Just start somewhere. Then try a cup of chamomile tea. You don’t even have to tell your friends.

7. Calms Forte‘. This is a safe, non-habit-forming, natural, homeopathic sleep remedy made by a company name Highlands. It’s made with chamomile, passionflower, valerian, and some other traditional relaxation and sleep herbs and is gentle and easy to use for anyone, even children.

8. Good Morning Sunshine. When you wake up in the morning, open the curtains and let light pour into your eyes. If it’s still dark, you need a new job, but turn on a light and get that in your eyes. This provokes your circadian rhythm, shutting off melatonin and getting cortisol, the “get up and go hormone” getting up and going. When cortisol gets on track, melatonin gets on track too.

9. Bedrooms are for Beds. If your bedroom is also your home theater, then something is wrong. Yes, I am kind of judging you if you have a giant flat screen across from your bed, especially if you sleep like crap. It’s nothing personal and it’s for your own good. The bedroom is a sacred space for sleeping, sex, select conversation, and wardrobe change. When you bring the Daily Show, the Survivor cast and, God forbid, Dora the Explorer into your sacred space, you’ve about blown it. Between external anxiety, noise, and blue light, you can forget about it. It’s just one woman’s opinion, but I’m right.

10. Ritual. Find a night-time method that works for you, then stick to it night after night. Maybe it’s a walk, a light snack, and a bedtime story. Maybe bathing the kiddos, a cup of Sleepytime or Nighty Night tea, and some light stretching. Maybe a hot shower, music while packing lunches, and a conversation with your lover. Maybe you sit outside with the kids, do a family breathing exercise, then pet the dogs to relieve stress. Do you see the relaxation theme? Do you see that FOX news is strikingly absent? Find a simple ritual you love and try it out for a while.

Maybe you’re thinking that all, or any, of this is impossible– impossible not to be on Facebook till midnight or drink two glasses of wine a night. a) It’s not impossible, maybe you just don’t want to and b) If you really need sanity, anxiety reduction and better sleep, and you’ve tried sleeping pills and alcohol, I hope you will try tea and a sleep mask. The fact is that we are sicker, fatter and more stressed out than ever before in our nation– and it’s killing us every night that we don’t sleep. Just keep in mind that re-claiming your natural circadian rhythm is not as quick as popping a pill, but it certainly won’t kill you.

Here’s to your good night!



BMJ Open (; Science Daily (;

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 J0000004UTC 2011 4:07 pm

    Great read. I do find it funny that the Calms Forte Sleep Aid is the Non-Drowsy Formula. ;o)

  2. 20 J0000004UTC 2011 4:10 pm

    I also love the comment about bedrooms being a sacred place, NOT fit for giant TVs. Not only do TVs in the bedroom mess with your sleep, but they cut into your sex life too. Boo!!!

    And on a personal note… F**king Dora! :oS

    • 20 J0000004UTC 2011 9:08 am

      I know. The TV is a double whammy. At least.

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