Better Than Marijuana Brownies

Let’s be honest: the holidays aren’t always easy. The whole thing can stress you out to the point where all you want to do is eat, eat, eat. But you can’t exactly indulge yourself — it would look unseemly for you to scarf down all the Christmas cookies you yourself have baked.

Who knew that the solution to these inopportune food cravings lay in Ambien, America’s favorite sleeping pill?

Let’s be honest: the holidays aren’t always easy. Yuletide spirit, family togetherness, gathering ‘round the festal board night after night … Well, it can get to be a bit much. Especially if you’re the one doing most of the cooking, the whole thing can stress you out to the point where all you want to do is eat, eat, eat. But you can’t exactly indulge yourself — it would look unseemly for you to scarf down all the Christmas cookies you yourself have baked.

Who knew that the solution to these inopportune food cravings lay in Ambien, America’s favorite sleeping pill?

Writer Paul Simms knew it, and he told all. If you missed these recipes from the Ambien Cookbook when they first appeared in the New Yorker in July of 2006, maybe you’ll find them helpful now.

Sorpresa con Queso

Ingredients:

7 bags Cheetos-brand cheese snacks

17 to 19 glasses tap water

5 mg. Ambien

Place Cheetos bags in cupboard.

Take Ambien, fall asleep.

Wait 2-3 hours, then sleepwalk to kitchen, tear cupboard doors off hinges in search of Cheetos.

Find Cheetos, eat contents of all 7 bags.

Fall back asleep on kitchen floor.

When awakened by early-morning sunlight, get up and say, “What the—?”

Wipe orange Cheetos dust from fingers, face, and hair.

Drink 17 to 19 glasses of water from kitchen tap.

Return to bed.

Icebox Mélange

Ingredients:

Entire contents of refrigerator

1 Diet Snapple

5 mg. Ambien

Take Ambien, fall asleep.

Wait 2-3 hours, then sleepwalk to kitchen.

Devour everything in refrigerator (including all fancy mustards and jellies, iffy takeout leftovers, and plastic dial from thermostat).

Belch loud enough to wake wife or girlfriend. When she enters kitchen, bellow, “Can’t you see I’m working here?”

Fall asleep on kitchen floor.

After 4-5 more hours, wake up on subway, fully dressed from the waist up, drinking a Diet Snapple.

In Praise of Sleeping on the Couch

Sleeping on the couch isn’t always a bad idea. Some insomnia sufferers are light sleepers prone to high-frequency brain activity even during the deeper stages of sleep, or so the experts say. We pick up on information in the environment that normal sleepers readily tune out.

The problem may be that there are disturbances in the bedroom itself.

It’s a telltale sign of denial in people with insomnia, as far as sleep experts are concerned. To sleep anywhere but the bed is to avoid facing up to your real problem with sleep: namely, the fact that your bed has become Enemy No. 1. The frustration of going to bed and being unable to sleep has become associated with the bed itself, so that merely setting foot in the bedroom can make you anxious. Just thinking about B-E-D makes your stomach clench.

Hence, the cowardly retreat to sleeping on the couch.

Well, OK. Most of us would rather sleep in our beds, and if the bed triggers negative associations, there are treatments you can undergo to relieve the situation and they’re worth checking out.

But sleeping on the couch isn’t always a sign of denial. Some insomnia sufferers are light sleepers prone to high-frequency brain activity even during the deeper stages of sleep, or so the experts say. We pick up on information in the environment that normal sleepers readily tune out. The problem may be that there are disturbances in the bedroom itself.

•  Snoring husband? Now, which is the more rational approach to sleep, arguing with an unresponsive husband (“Turn over, you’re snoring.” “Was not.” Were too.” “My head’s already under the pillow.” “Is not.” “Is too.”) or tiptoeing out of the bedroom and into the arms of a nice mute couch?

•  Thrashing wife? Same thing. She may be fighting tigers in her dreams, but are you going to stick around to discuss the fact that she may be the one with sleep problem and shouldn’t she finally go in for that sleep study after all? No way. Head for the couch.

•  You wake up roasting in the sheets? It’s time to take a leaf out of Ben Franklin’s book. Franklin knew heat could sabotage sleep and had a second bed to go to when the first got too warm. Why toss and turn amid sweaty sheets when you can stretch out on a nice cool couch?

•  Moonlight awakens you at 2 a.m.? Is it your fault that your partner leaves the blinds open so he can awaken to sunlight and an alarm clock chanting, “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe?” No, señor! The simple way to solve this problem is to head to the couch in the den.

A couch with all the right accoutrements can be a godsend for insomniacs in a pinch. Do not underestimate us, sleep experts. Sometimes we’re smarter than you think.

Do Sleeping Pills Hasten Dementia?

As if it weren’t bad enough that sleeping pills may increase your susceptibility to the common cold and shorten your life, a new study suggests that insomnia and sleeping pills like Ambien and Imovane (similar to Lunesta) increase your chances of developing dementia after age 50.

Is your day brighter yet?

sleeping pills may be a risk factor for dementiaAs if it weren’t bad enough that sleeping pills may increase your susceptibility to the common cold and shorten your life, a new study suggests that insomnia and sleeping pills like Ambien and Imovane (similar to Lunesta) increase your chances of developing dementia after age 50. Is your day brighter yet?

Study Details

Authors of the study on sleeping pills and dementia examined data from a large database in Taiwan with two questions in mind:

1)  How does the risk of dementia compare in patients with and without insomnia? and

2)  Is there an association between sleeping pill use and the risk of dementia in older adults?

The study included over 34,000 patients ages 50 and above. About 5,700 were diagnosed with long-term insomnia during a 3-year period and were prescribed sleeping pills. For each of these patients, investigators looked at 5 others without insomnia and compared them.

Overall, insomnia patients taking prescription hypnotics were over twice as likely to receive a dementia diagnosis as patients who did not have insomnia or use sleeping pills. Insomnia patients in the 50- to 65-year age range were over 5 times as likely to develop dementia. Longer-acting sleeping pills (benzodiazepines like Klonopin and Dalmane) and higher doses of sleeping pills also increased the risk of dementia.

Limitations

But note the study’s limitations. Investigators controlled for factors like hypertension and diabetes but were unable to control for education and socioeconomic status, smoking and alcohol consumption, and body mass, all of which play a role in the development of dementia.

A more serious limitation is the fact that researchers could not ascertain whether the increased risk of dementia was due mainly to the sleeping pills or to insomnia itself. And, as P.L. Chen and colleagues point out, it could be that the sleep disturbances that developed in these middle-aged and older patients were actually early symptoms of dementia already in the works.

Still, any controlled study that points to possible side effects of sleeping pills should give pause to people who use them, and I am one. The pharmaceutical industry and researchers funded by the industry insist the newer sleeping pills have fewer side effects, and this may be true. But I’m still convinced that caution should be the watchword for long-term users. Only take them when you need them, and use the lowest dose that works.

 

More Than Just Poor Sleep

Insomnia is about more than just poor sleep. Sometimes it’s about isolation, 24/7.

Insomnia and loneliness go hand in handInsomnia is a lonely affair. No one’s up at night to keep you company, no one’s awake to talk on the phone. Apart from anonymous exchanges on the internet, you’re cut off from the warmth of conversation.

Nor can you give yourself fully to things that might otherwise appeal. Mentally and physically at low ebb, you can’t engage and take pleasure in many activities you normally enjoy.

Darkness restricts your ability to see beyond the walls of your home. You don’t get the long view, the familiar distracters. Inevitably you’re thrust inside yourself. And that can be distressing.

“You have these terrible, terrible night thoughts,” the novelist Ella Leffland said in an interview some years ago. “I think when you have insomnia, this is something that you come to understand very well: that you are alone and you are yourself, and nobody’s going to help you get through the darkest hours.”

Lonely by Day

This sense of isolation doesn’t necessarily end with the coming of the day. Trying to talk about persistent insomnia may make you feel misunderstood and lonelier still, as one participant in a focus group explained: “I feel very isolated about, basically, that nobody can conceive what it’s like … they once had a bad night’s sleep and so they ‘know what it’s like’  and they ‘just got over it’ … so it’s something obviously lacking in me.”

Christie, an insomniac I interviewed for my book, had a sympathetic fiancé, but there was no one in her life who really understood her situation. “I still feel like I’m alone with the problem,” she said. “It’s something that I’m going to have to figure out on my own.”

Avoiding Others

People with chronic insomnia may also turn away from personal contact, isolating themselves even further:

“When I haven’t had enough sleep, I want to be isolated and not have to make a lot of decisions.”

“I don’t contribute in the group chats. I often feel as if I just want to be alone and will disappear during break.

“I feel drowsy, unproductive, grumpy, sometimes tearful and anti-social. I just want to be left alone.”

Insomnia is about more than just poor sleep. Sometimes it’s about isolation, 24/7.

Clocking the Hours at Night

Does the sight of a clock at night make you anxious?

Here’s my solution to that.

Clock watching at night fuels anxiety and insomniaA student once described to me the lengths he had to go to in order to get to work on time. He was in my night class, and he was always struggling to stay awake.

“I get up at 4 every morning,” he explained. Or, he added, he was supposed to get up at 4. But often he overslept the alarm. So he’d devised a system where he set four alarm clocks – one at the head, one at the foot, and one on each side of the bed, all facing toward him – to go off at the exact same time. That’s what it took to wake him up. This was one sleep-deprived man!

A quadrumvirate of alarm clocks standing sentry at my bed is my personal vision of hell. Never mind that the piercing clamor in the morning would blast me through the roof. What the mere presence of those clocks would do to my nights is even worse. Knowing that their luminous faces were trained on me like four sets of malevolent eyes, waiting for a flicker of my eyelids to broadcast the passing of time, would seal the deal: I’d never get to sleep at all.

Clock-watching and sleep don’t mix, I’ve discovered through the years. It’s not that otherwise I’m unaware that time is passing. It’s that coming fact to face with a clock at night triggers tension, a reflexive response I haven’t been able to shake despite the many ways I’ve succeeded in improving my sleep in recent years.

I’m not the only insomniac who feels this way. “When you have to work the next day, I think its hard not to watch the clock,” Liz said in an interview on the phone. “You try not to. But when the hours are rolling by, you start to count the hours you’ve got left. It gets to be 3 or 4 in the morning, and you think, ‘Christ, I’ve got to be up by 6!’ That is anxiety …

I’ve learned to turn the clock in my study to the wall an hour or two before bedtime. And the alarm clock on my bedside table is a Brookstone, one of those back-lit types that don’t shine in the dark unless you press down on the top. It’s a small thing, but it’s done wonders for my sleep.

Night and Sleep Don’t Mix

Sleep scientists are still trying to figure out why 10 to 15 percent of us have trouble sleeping at night. Normal sleepers are in the majority; people with insomnia are the deviants.

But is insomnia really so odd in view of all the crimes and disasters that have occurred at night?

Sleep scientists are still trying to figure out why 10 to 15 percent of us have trouble sleeping at night. Normal sleepers are in the majority; people with insomnia are the deviants.

Nights in Ancient Greece

But looking back 2,700 years to the time when Hesiod wrote his Theogony has made me see the issue in a different light. Night, says Hesiod, was the mother of a spectacularly unsavory brood. Not only did she produce the brothers Sleep and Death. She also gave birth to the forces of Doom, Ridicule, Woe, Deception and Strife. And wouldn’t you know it, Strife went on to outdo her mother in pernicious progeny, giving birth to Famine, Combats, Contentions and Murders, not to mention Lawlessness, Lies and Recklessness.

Did many ancient Greeks sleep through the night in peace and tranquility? I have my doubts.

Let’s not forget the famed Trojan horse, whose hidden warriors emerged at night, opened the city gates to their warrior fellows, and so conquered Troy. Or the frightful nights of the Middle Ages, when the rear watchman patrolling the streets by torchlight offered scant protection from evil supernatural forces or criminal and political violence.

More Infamy at Night

“Night,” the Canadian poet Christopher Dewdney has written, “has been the traditional shelter for revolutions, military attacks, freedom fighters, and various insurgencies but it has also covered pogroms, suppressions and vigilantes. The lynch mobs of the American Wild West rode at night, as did the Ku Klux Klan.” Kristallnacht occurred at night, Dewdney points out, as did many Nazi atrocities committed against Jewish families in the Warsaw ghetto.

What about disasters caused unintentionally by human hands? The poison gas leak in Bhopal began shortly after midnight. The Exxon Valdez ran aground shortly after midnight as well. The partial meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island began around 4 in the morning.

Most murders occur at night. A majority of domestic violence and rapes do, too. Most deadly residential fires occur between midnight and 6 a.m.; most sudden infant deaths, between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m.

The mystery is not that 10 to 15 percent of us have persistent insomnia. It’s that normal sleepers sleep so well.

Drinking to Get to Sleep

The story on alcohol and sleep is complicated. About 10 to 14 percent of adults in the United States use alcohol as a sleep aid. While it generally degrades the quality of sleep, the use of alcohol does not predict the development of persistent insomnia, say the authors of a large longitudinal study published in January 2012 in the journal Sleep. But—and here’s the troubling part—twice as many insomniacs become problem drinkers as people who sleep well.

Here is one woman’s story of how alcohol led to trouble sleeping and insomnia.

Insomnia more likely when relying on alcohol for sleepI mentioned to a gastroenterologist that I was writing a book about insomnia.

“Alcohol,” he said in response. “If you want to understand insomnia, look at alcohol and coffee.” His assumption that alcohol and coffee are causal factors in insomnia is widely held, and eventually I checked it out.

The story on alcohol and sleep is complicated. About 10 to 14 percent of adults in the United States use alcohol as a sleep aid. While it generally degrades the quality of sleep, the use of alcohol does not predict the development of persistent insomnia, say the authors of a large longitudinal study published in January 2012 in the journal Sleep. But—and here’s the troubling part—twice as many insomniacs become problem drinkers as people who sleep well.

Marilynn’s Story of Sleep and Alcohol

“Insomnia’s been a problem since I was very young,” Marilynn told me in an interview. “Unless the house was totally dark and quiet, I couldn’t sleep.” At her house those conditions were hard to come by. Her parents “always partied on the weekend, and very, very frequently during the week. It was just a noisy house.” The TV was always on, blasting away because her father was deaf in one ear. At parties the booze flowed freely. “In our house the bar was a shrine.”

“I remember my mom having bridge club and somebody letting me taste their creme de menthe,” she said. Marilynn was 9.  “So I just helped myself one night when the babysitter was upstairs and I was downstairs at the bar. I remember taking a glass …  and filling it with creme de menthe and thinking I was going to be sick to my stomach. But I also remember waking up the next morning and walking into this horrendous mess (from the party) downstairs. And I thought, ‘I slept through this. That stuff helped me sleep.’”

Marilynn dipped into the liquor cabinet occasionally for help in sleeping through the parties and her parents’ loud fights. Then in high school she learned about the dangers of drinking and stopped. But her problem with sleep continued unabated. Several years later she raised the sleep issue with her ob/gyn. “He suggested drinking a glass of red wine at night. He said two would be OK, too. And it worked for quite a while.”

Developing Tolerance

Then she found herself needing to increase the amount. To the wine she added a whiskey chaser. This, too, worked for a while. But by the mid-1990s, her drinking was out of control. She was hiding bottles from her husband and doing strange things at night.

“I wasn’t going to sleep,” Marilynn said. “I was passing out. I didn’t know then that I was also getting up.”

But her husband knew, and he was hiding the evidence. Then one morning Marilynn went down to the kitchen and found barley soup splattered all over the kitchen cupboards.

“’Who made this mess?’” she recalled shrieking at her husband. She had, he told her, and similar things had happened before.

“I had no recollection,” she said. “As far as I was concerned, I had slept through the night.” Around the same time, Marilynn lost her teaching job. She realized then that she had to get help, and she got it through AA. But while she’s given up drinking, her insomnia persists.

“I think it’s kept me very scattered, disorganized and unambitious. It’s been very, very limiting,” she said. “Definitely, absolutely, it’s what led to my problem with alcohol.”

Sleep problems are no trivial matter, as the link between insomnia and the higher rate of alcoholism suggests. If you’re going to imbibe, say the experts, do it early in the evening. But if you’re looking for a sleep aid, you’d be wise to choose something else.

Good Nights, Bad Nights

Even people with insomnia sleep well from time to time. “I know on a sunny day after I’ve had a good night, I’m almost high,” Mary, a writer and former teacher, told me as we sat talking over cups of tea.

The day is wonderful after a good night’s sleep. But what about mornings after really bad nights?

Even people with insomnia sleep well from time to time.

“I know on a sunny day after I’ve had a good night, I’m almost high,” Mary, a writer and former teacher, told me as we sat talking over cups of tea. A long-time insomnia sufferer, Mary appreciates the good days in part because they’re rare, coming maybe one in 10. Yet when they occur, her productivity as a poet soars. The ideas are fresher and flow faster. The right word, elusive on a bad day, comes quickly. “It just feels wonderful,” she said.

Waking up stressed

The day is wonderful after a good night’s sleep. But what about mornings after really bad nights?

At my house they’re pretty grim. Awakening begins with a jumble of thoughts nattering away inside my head. It’s as if my brain never fully disengaged, so much does it seem to be stuck where it left off the night before. Half a dozen aches and pains clamor for attention, too: throbbing forehead, dry eyes, aching arms and shoulders, and a racing sensation in my stomach and chest. Thinking about the day ahead is overwhelming. I feel spent before the day even begins.

Is There a Pattern?

I’ve known all my life that these bad nights occur more often during times of stress. Beyond that, it never occurred to me to wonder if there was a pattern to the good nights and the bad.

Researchers in recent years have wondered just that: is there a predictable rhythm to insomniacs’ poor sleep? Their findings may be helpful to people with sleep problems.

  • Annie Vallieres and colleagues (Journal of Sleep Research, 2005) looked at the sleep diaries of over 100 insomniacs and found there was a predictable pattern of good and bad nights for about two-thirds of the subjects. The majority of them could count on a good night’s sleep after 1 to 3 bad nights. It could be reassuring to know that a better night’s sleep is just a day or two away, the authors write. Predictability of good and bad nights might alleviate some of the anxiety associated with poor sleep.
  • Cindy Swinkels, reporting in 2010 on a study she conducted for her PhD thesis, found that insomniacs can expect a “better-than-average” night’s sleep within 3 days. But “good” sleep may come only 1 night in 6.

What’s the take-home message here? One thing the research suggests is that people who worry about their sleep would do well to keep sleep diaries for a few weeks. If you find you sleep better after 1 or 2 days of bad sleep, recognizing this pattern could ease some of the worry, which may improve your sleep. Download and keep this two-week sleep diary recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to see if there’s a pattern to your bad nights.

But there’s nothing reassuring about having to slog through 5 nights of bad sleep to get to a good night. If this is your situation (or if your situation is worse, like Mary’s), then it’s time to look for help.