So there I was, having my usual night’s “rest”. Meaning that I sleep for two or three hours and then I’m up for most of the rest of the night, catching another hour or so of naptime around dawn. What do I do during the wee, wakeful hours? I read. I worry about my (grown) kids. I look up things on the Internet: “what is a cartouche?” (an oval graphic figure dating from Egyptian hieroglyphics);
“Who was Edmund Husserl?” (a mathemetician and thinker who founded the philosophical school of phenomenology – my head hurts just trying to understand it);
Why does everyone hate Jessica Biel? (apparently she is considered a famewhore and once made a massive error in complaining that she doesn’t get offered parts because she’s “too beautiful”. Oops – bad move, Jessica!)
After an hour or so of ticking off such pressing questions and then another hour of staring into the darkness in the hopes that sleep will overcome the boredom, I usually give up and start doing crossword puzzles or check the headlines. Last night it was the headlines around 3:30 a.m. and what should pop out at me but this: “Chinese soccer fan dies after going eleven days without sleep watching every Euro 2012 match”.
Do we believe this?
In paragraph three or four it does mention that alcohol and tobacco played a part, but the official cause of death is listed as “exhaustion”. Well, Lindsay Lohan often suffers from “exhaustion”, too, but is that really what we think is going on?
A 2009 Slate Magazine article claims that “while no human being is known to have died from staying awake” (our Chinese soccer fan may be the first) “animal research strongly suggests it could happen”. An experiment on rats by a University of Chicago researcher in the 1980’s gave credence to the theory that sleep deprivation can be deadly when all the rats in the study expired after thirty-two days.
Did they really keep them awake for 32 days straight? I dunno. Playing Willard on a non-stop loop, maybe?
The point is, I think (and I’m not thinking all that clearly after four nights in a row of fragmented sleep) is that it is not good for us to not get our shut-eye. A 2003 University of Pennsylvania study (Van Dongen, et al) concluded that
“Chronic restriction of sleep periods to 4 h or 6 h per night over 14 consecutive days resulted in significant cumulative, dose-dependent deficits in cognitive performance on all tasks.” All tasks. Not just operating heavy machinery. And I heartily second that motion, because I am a bumbling idiot most of the time given my chronic sleep deprivation. But do I now need to think of it as being life-threatening? Maybe only if I’m watching soccer?
Here’s the rub. There’s new data that suggests all those lovely (I am especially attached to that Lunesta commercial with the butterfly) prescription sleep-aids out there come with their own attendant risks. In February of 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that “A new study suggests that the 6% to 10% of Americans who use prescription sleep medications such as…Ambien…Restoril…Lunesta and and Sonata are more likely to develop cancer, and far more likely to die prematurely, than those who take no sleep aids.”
I’ve never taken one of these pills, so I don’t know what it feels like to have a whole night’s sleep (although HOW CAN THAT BE A BAD THING?) and I have to wonder if there were some overlooked variables that might have skewed the study. Again, I am hardly your expert on sleep, so I just don’t know. But the researchers, from the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla in conjunction with the Jackson Hole Center for Preventive Medicine (two places where it would seem everyone is sleeping well…) claim “For those prescribed as few as one to 18 sleeping pills in a year, deaths during the period of the new study were more than three and a half times greater than for those who got no such prescriptions, the study says. And for patients who took home the largest number of prescriptions for sleep aids–for more than 132 pills per year–the risk of death was five times greater than among those who appeared to take no sleep aids, according to the study.
This is all enough to keep one awake at night.
As usual, we are between a rock and a hard place. Death by sleep deprivation or death by sleep aid. I don’t know which is worse. But right now, I’m too tired to think about it. Check in with me around 3 a.m….