The Sleeping Brain Is a Plastic Brain
Sleep is a mysterious phenomenon; we’re only just beginning to understand why it was programmed into human and animal DNA so many millions of years ago. Some have speculated that we sleep because we need to conserve energy, or because the body restores itself better when we are in a state of near unconsciousness. New research is pointing to another reason, which may turn out to be the reason that pain patients really need to sleep well. Sleep is necessary for brain plasticity, and the brain reshapes itself best during sleep, when there are fewer activities to attend to and fewer distractions. We haven’t yet discovered all the ways that sleep facilitates neuro-plasticity, but we do know that the brain is very active during sleep, and that sleep is necessary for consolidation of new learning and memory, tasks which require creating new brain pathways. We’ve also learned that sleep influences certain genes and proteins that help create new brain tissue.5 And areas of the brain involved with storing new information, such as the hippocampus, use sleep time to expand and adapt their circuits to improve learning.
15 Poses to Help You Sleep Better Photo Gallery
Beware the Sleeping Pills
More than 70 million Americans, including tens of millions of chronic pain patients, suffer from insomnia—a huge number of potential customers for pharmaceutical companies, and they haven’t hesitated to produce one sleeping pill after another, promoting the idea that these pills are simple solutions to insomnia. Doctors, in turn, write some nine million prescriptions for sleeping pills every year, and if they truly were the solution to insomnia, we’d be one very well-rested country. But these medicines are not meant for extended use and should never be considered cures for long-term insomnia. For one thing, the sleep they produce is not as high quality as natural sleep, especially in the long run. And the pills themselves have side effects, sometimes scary ones, including lapses in memory, daytime drowsiness, balance problems, and more. You might even develop parasomnia, which means sleepwalking or engaging in activities without being aware of what you’re doing.
People in the grips of parasomnia have been known to eat, have sex, drive cars, and talk with people on the phone while they are still asleep.
But even more alarming is the mounting evidence suggesting the use of sleeping pills is linked to a shorter life expectancy and greater risk of developing cancer. A number of studies have looked at the link between hypnotic sleeping pills, such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Halcion, and an increased risk of death and/or cancer. A 2012 study6 looked at over 10,000 people suffering from a variety of ailments who used prescribed sleeping pills, and compared them to over 23,000 people who did not. The two groups were followed for an average of 2.5 years, and the risk of dying for each was calculated.
The results were shocking: The risk of dying was 3.6 times higher in those prescribed eighteen doses of sleeping pills per year—just eighteen doses! That’s the equivalent of popping a sleeping pill just once or twice per month. And the higher the rate of usage, the higher the risk of dying. Among those taking 132 doses or more per year, the risk of death increased more than 5 times, prompting some researchers to label sleeping pills more dangerous than smoking!
As for cancer, the same study found an increased risk of developing cancer of the lung, colon, prostate, and esophagus, as well as lymphoma, in those using the largest amounts of sleeping pills. The researchers concluded that, “Excess mortality is associated with hypnotic use, and that the increased mortality could not be explained by the health status of the participants before they began taking the sleeping pills, or the diseases they had.”
We still have a lot to learn about the effects of sleeping pills, but this much is clear: They don’t provide nearly as much benefit as we have been led to believe, and they are more dangerous than most of us realize. That’s why I urge my patients to use them sparingly, if at all, and immediately start developing healthier strategies for getting a good night’s sleep.