Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

woman lying in bed awake

Sleep, Sleep Medicine and Stress: What about Sleeping Pills? Part 3

by James Porter February 25, 2021

This is the third of a seven-part series on stress and sleep. If you’ve had difficulty sleeping during the pandemic, you are not alone. Insomnia was already reaching epidemic proportions BEFORE Covid as Americans were getting about 6.2 hours a night. Now those numbers may be getting worse. According to a survey published in Consumer Reports 28% of Americans reported having even more trouble falling or staying asleep since the Pandemic hit.

What about taking a sleeping pill?

If you’ve ever spent half the night tossing and turning, worrying about the new Covid variant or how you are going to pay the rent next month or whether your industry is ever going to completely recover from this pandemic, you will not be surprised to learn that 50% of all insomnia is caused by stress. If your doctor agrees – and rules out restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea - he or she will most likely prescribe a sleeping pill. However, you should know that this prescription will NOT be addressing the root of your problem. It will simply be masking a symptom of your stress.

This same issue applies to the treatment of many different stress-related health problems and can actually make your problem worse. Why? Because you are now under the false impression that you have a CURE for this problem, but you DON’T! You only have a method for masking the symptoms of stress-related health problem, not eliminating it. 

Let’s say you have a toxic boss, or you are in an abusive relationship, or are dealing with a serious financial problem and that’s what is keeping you up at night. Your sleeping pill WILL allow you to soldier on by giving you a few extra precious MINUTES of sleep each night. (On average, about 30 minutes.) And this little bit of help (along with a boatload of potential side effects) might get you through a stressful period if your stress is temporary. But make no mistake about it: If your stress is ongoing, your body is still going to experience wear and tear from that chronic stress even if your brain is unaware of the pain!!!

Remember stress-related health conditions are sometimes challenging for your doctor to diagnose: 1. Because he doesn’t have the time to delve into the sticky details of your day-to-day stressors and 2. Because the effects of stress are non-specific: One cause, stress, can result in many different effects. These effects include: migraine headaches, elevated blood pressure, chronic pain, rashes, hives and of course insomnia. How is a doctor supposed to determine whether your hair-loss, your infertility, your erectile disfunction, or your insomnia for that matter, is caused by stress or some other more easily isolated culprit.

If you come to your doctor with a rash, for example, he or she may not have the time to inquire whether you’ve been under a lot of stress lately. Your doctor is more likely to ask if you’ve come in contact with poison ivy or some other well-known irritant like wearing latex gloves. That’s a much easier, more straightforward diagnosis to make. (And your rash could be a combination of stress plus the exposure to latex!)

Keep in mind that with a skin rash, the solution that’s usually prescribed is a cortisol-based cream like Cortaid or Cortisone. In case you didn’t know it, CORTISOL IS A STRESS CHEMICAL that’s known to inhibit your immune system and works wonderfully if your rash is NOT stress-related. BUT if your rash is stress-related this treatment may make the problem worse.

This is just one example, of how our very advanced medical system, has evolved in such a way that is not always geared toward the complex (mind-body) interactions of the not always average patient! In other words, your doctor usually doesn’t have the time to get to the root of the problem if the root of the problem is STRESS! So, when it comes to taking a sleeping pill, remember, if your insomnia is stress-related, you won’t – by any means - be addressing the source of your insomnia by taking that pill.

In this case, and the others mentioned above, it’s always beneficial to consider alternative (or integrative) solutions as well. And, if you know what those solutions are, BEFORE, going to see your doctor, you can discuss them with him or her during your appointment. When you indicate a willingness to try an alternative solution your doctor may well endorse your initiative and say, YES, try this first, or try this in addition to what I’m prescribing and see if it helps.

That’s the position you ALWAYS want to be in when you visit your doctor with what you believe MIGHT be a stress-related health problem. In our next installment we will discuss one of the alternatives you might want to discuss in detail: Melatonin

James Porter
James Porter