Is Insomnia Wreaking Havoc Upon Your Health?

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February 07, 2004 | 31,775 views

By Dr. Joseph Mercola
     with Rachael Droege

Insomnia. It is a term used to describe the more than 82 million Americans who routinely have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. For those who have ever experienced a few sleepless nights in a row you are likely familiar with the feeling of desperation that sets in as you struggle to function during the following day. If it’s any consolation, you are not alone. Close to 40 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 15 reports they’ve experienced insomnia at least occasionally.

Why do we Sleep?

For an activity that takes up one-third of our lives, little is known about sleep and humans. It’s known, for example, that during the deepest phases of sleep growth hormone is released, energy is restored and the immune system is strengthened, and during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep we have vivid dreams and our brains may be working on consolidating memories.

Further, a study published in Nature last week found that our brain restructures new memories during sleep, helping us to solve problems and become more insightful. However, how and why this occurs, and how we’ve evolved to thrive off of a certain amount of sleep each night is largely unknown.

While it was once thought that our brains were inactive or dormant during sleep, it’s now known that our brains are very active during sleep and require the activity of special nerve cells just to maintain a state of sleep. But the effects of sleep on our physical and mental health are only just beginning to be understood.

Insomnia’s Effects on Health and the Economy

What is known about sleep is that when we don’t get enough of it there are serious consequences to our physical and mental health, economy and society as a whole. Insomnia, which can occur intermittently or for several days or months at a time, is classified as:

Insomnia will affect your hormone levels and accelerate aging and has been named as the culprit in a variety of diseases including:

But one of the most obvious and immediate effects of insomnia is the increased risk of accidents. As reported in Business Week, "Studies show that someone who has been awake for 24 hours has the same mental acuity as a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.1, which is above the legal limit for driving in most states."

This is a serious enough problem for the typical person driving to work, as an average of 70,000 auto accidents are caused by sleepy drivers each year, but when you consider someone who is a health care worker, pilot, or law enforcement worker, the effects can be deadly. Some 39 percent of health-care workers report that they’ve had a "near miss or accident" at work due to fatigue in the last year.

Further, sleep disorders cost the nation about $45 billion every year in lost productivity, health care and motor vehicle accidents.

New Sleeping Pills on the Horizon

Not surprisingly, the drug companies are scrambling to create new and improved sleeping pills that they can peddle to all of these sleepless people. It’s estimated that the market for such drugs will reach $5 billion by 2010, more than double its current value. Sleeping pills have caused some serious side effects in the past, such as addiction, depression, and suicide, but the newer drugs, some due out in 2004, promise to be non-addictive, safer and more effective than previous versions.

Here are just a few of the new sleep aid drugs that are being developed (data from Business Week):

Other drug companies are seeking to widen their market of current products, such as Cephalon’s narcolepsy drug Provigil. The manufacturer just received approval last month to market the drug to treat a range of sleep disorders, including sleepiness suffered by night-shift workers, as opposed to only narcolepsy.

The drug companies will surely play their part in popularizing the new drugs by playing up the risks of insomnia along with the benefits of their drugs, but what really needs to be addressed is whether a drug-induced sleep can really provide the same, complex benefits that natural sleep provides--and I would suspect not.

Methods to Help You Sleep

If you’re suffering from insomnia it may be tempting to look to a pill for an immediate solution, but in the long-term the effects of these drugs are likely to be worse than those of the insomnia. Here are my top 10 suggestions from my Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep for those of you who are having sleep problems, and you can check out the guide for 19 more.

For 19 more tips, visit the "Guide to a Good Night's Sleep"