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To remedy insomnia—pop a pill or down a drink

When I first told my mom I was having sleep problems, she didn’t seem concerned. I was in university, it…

By Monica Tanaka , in Insomniac , on January 12, 2009 Tags: , ,

When I first told my mom I was having sleep problems, she didn’t seem concerned. I was in university, it was exam season—it was all too natural to loose sleep.

Then it happened again and it wasn’t exam season and I didn’t have a “reason” for my sleepless nights and it was not just a few lost nights. It was more like a lost week.

That’s when my education on the world of sleep remedies began. My mom suggested I take valerian, a herbal remedy made from the roots of the valerian plant. It was an ‘all natural’ approach, so how bad could it be? I couldn’t imagine how a pretty plant with lovely little white flowers could induce the painful and often embarrassing side-effects associated with certain lifestyle drugs.

No, said science nerd in me. I rationalised that I should be just as wary of herbal remedies as I was of over-the-counter drugs. My mom couldn’t understand. But after reading a story in last Thursday’s Globe and Mail, I sure hope she’s not taking valerian to lull her to sleep. In the story, Health Canada linked valerian to nightmares and hallucinations.

What could be worse, eh? You finally fall asleep, only to be sucked into a vortex of nightmares where you can’t tell what’s real from what’s not.

I imagined popping a pill of valerian and letting go, feeling the relief of a cloud of artificial sleep envelop me. A brutal awakening would follow. Startled and sweaty, I wouldn’t be able to tell if I really was a giant mouse, whose bloody encounter with the landlady, Mrs. Rahman, had turned me into a tail-less, vulnerable version of my former self.

I’ll have a glass of wine instead, please.

The majority of Quebeckers seem to agree with me. The journal Sleep, as reported in a Scientific American story, published a study that looked at what insomniacs in Quebec take or do to get a few hours shut-eye. At the top of the list was alcohol, followed by over-the-counter and prescription medication in second-place and insomnia health consultants in third-place.

Having one drink before bed can help you fall asleep, but as in my case, one drink led to two, which led to three and so on. Heavy drinking is part of college life, making the distinction between drinking for health and drinking for fun blurry at best.

So I paid a visit to an on-campus doctor, surely one who was well-acquainted with sleep-deprived students, and she gave me prescription sleeping pills that belong to the family of drugs called benzodiazepines. They come under the various names of Dalmane, Doral, Halicon, Prosom and Restoril.

And finally, sleep came. It was like bumping into that cheerful Australian you met backpacking in Laos two weeks after you’d had your tearful good-bye, not knowing when you’d see each other next. I’d found my best friend again.

After a few nights of deep sleep, I threw the pills in the trash. I was not about to become an addict.  Thankfully, my normal sleep pattern resumed, possibly kick-started by a few Restorils, and my insomnia worries faded.

The nightmare was over.