Meredith Weston is a recent graduate of The Catholic University of America where she received her master’s degree in biotechnology.
It’s the middle of the night and, again, you find yourself exhausted, restless, and frustrated. You turn on the television and within seconds you hear: “Are you tired? Do you toss and turn until the early morning hours?” The commercial’s music is that of delicate harps, you see someone sleeping peacefully on a cloud and, just like that, you’re convinced a pill could be the answer to all of your nighttime woes. Just then, you hear a disclaimer quickly rattling off the side effects which, to your shock, include walking, eating, and driving while sleeping and the possibility of vivid hallucinations. Sound familiar? It should, as it has been reported that about one in four Americans are reaching for some type of prescription drug every night to help them sleep.
Scientists aren’t entirely sure why we sleep. However, they do have theories about the functions of this mysterious part of our lives, including deep evolutionary roots, the need of our body to refuel ATP (energy), and sleep’s potential role in memory and health. These theories are particularly timely, as insomnia is a growing public health issue affecting 48% of Americans and is said to be linked to a greater inclination for cancer, depression, and disease. Only recently have scientists begun to understand the science of sleep and how the alternating cycle of sleep and waking is related to daylight and darkness. When a nerve pathway from the retina in the eye is stimulated by light, a signal is sent to the hypothalamus in the brain. It is there that a center called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) initiates signals to other parts of the brain, more specifically the pineal gland. These signals control the release of stimulating hormones like cortisol during daylight, which makes you feel more alert, and delay the release of other hormones like melatonin, which is associated with sleepiness, until many hours later when darkness arrives.
Recently, melatonin—in pill form—has become an increasingly popular natural alternative to prescription sleep medications. Studies have shown that melatonin is not only good for helping you sleep, but it also has been found to stop or slow the spread of cancer, strengthen the immune system, and act as an antioxidant, which can help slow the aging process. Because melatonin is found naturally in some foods, it is the only hormone available in the United States without a prescription. For some, this is a cause for concern because, as it is not categorized as a drug, synthetic melatonin is made in factories that are not regulated by the FDA. But prescription sleep aids have recently been called as “risky as cigarettes.” A staggering new study found that people that take prescription sleeping pills even once in a while are at a higher risk of death than those who don’t. The top third of sleeping-pill users had a 5.3-fold higher death risk and a 35% higher risk of cancer, the study found. While there are no clear explanations for these connections, some specialists believe there is an increased risk of suicide and risky behavior, like impaired driving, with the use of prescription sleep aids. Furthermore, it has been shown that certain drugs, like Zolpidem, can also increase stomach regurgitation, thereby increasing the risk of esophageal cancer.
So, before you decide to try over-the-counter sleep aids or consult your doctor about prescription sleep medication, it’s important you know what the television ads aren’t telling you.