Understanding Sleep

Do you ever feel sleepy or “zone out” during the day? Do you find it hard to wake up on Monday mornings? If so, you are familiar with the powerful need for sleep. However, you may not realize that sleep is as essential for your well-being as food and water.

How do perscription sleep medications work?

Sleep is a complex physiological process connected to such environmental factors as light and temperature. As night falls and temperatures begin to drop chemicals in the brain begin to slow the activity of neurons responsible for attention and wakefulness, allowing drowsiness to set in.

The two largest classes of prescription sleeping pills enhance the activity or the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). However GABA is an imperfect drug target because it performs multiple functions in the brain. Benzodiazepines, an older class of sleep medicines that includes Valium, enhance the broad range of GABA’s effects. For this reason bennies are also often proscribed for panic attacks. But given their addictiveness, and high side effect profile (lethargy, loss of memory, difficulties operating heavy machinery . . .) they lost their popularity as sleep medications. England banned the ubiquitous sleeping pill Halcion from the market in 1991 because the medication was associated with depression and memory loss. Carrying strong warnings, it is still available in the U.S.

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