Sleep When You’re Dead

Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. The simple solution would
be to get more rest, but another response to the problem is being
offered by the pharmaceutical industry. It’s called Provigil, a
drug that’s been used for several years to treat serious sleep
disorders like narcolepsy and now has been approved for wider
use.

Provigil’s claim to fame is that it keeps you awake. Marketed in
the United States by Cephalon, the drug is said to be a stimulant
with fewer side effects than amphetamines, Ritalin, or even the old
over-the-counter standby, caffeine. The word is that Provigil
(short for ‘promotes vigilance’) has virtually no impact other than
the desired alertness. Lacking any euphoric buzz or kick, it is not
expected to become a recreational drug. But it could become a
lifestyle drug, prescribed for nonmedical conditions —
like ‘curing’ sleep.

Provigil was first approved in 1998 for treating narcolepsy, a
serious disorder marked by a debilitating tendency to fall asleep
without warning. In the fall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
added two new syndromes for which doctors can prescribe the drug:
One is sleep apnea, which can wake people up so often at night that
they’re fatigued during the day. The other is known as ‘shift work
sleep disorder,’ which according to one description ‘consists of
symptoms of insomnia or excessive sleepiness that occur as
transient phenomena in relation to work schedules.’

Provigil has not yet been approved as an all-purpose pick-me-up
that doctors can prescribe as they see fit, but that could be on
the way. Then what? In a busy society that already views all
idleness as a waste of time, if not a disease, it will become even
harder to appreciate that rest and sleep are often cures
themselves.

Given its stimulant effect, Provigil is also being touted as a
possible treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD). But according to Jason Williams in Psychology
Today
(July 2003), a Brown University study revealed that
sleep deprivation may result in ADHD-like symptoms. ‘Reducing
hyperactivity and impulsivity in some children may be as simple as
putting them to bed,’ notes Williams. With between 4 and 12 percent
(3.8 million) of school-age children estimated to have ADHD,
something as simple as more sleep may be the key.

But the real market for Provigil may be not as a treatment but
as an en-hancement — a substance that makes well people even
better. The drug is already being called one of the first in a new
class that promotes ‘wakefulness.’ David Plotz, writing for the
online magazine Slate, tested the drug and kept a daily
diary. On Day 1 he went from alert to incredibly attentive to
grinning like a ‘feral chipmunk.’ He ended the day dreaming of
‘Getting Things Done.’

While there are certainly those who will be helped by drugs like
Provigil, there are dangers as well. As with antidepressants and
other drugs, we’ll have to guard against the tendency to equate
health and normality with a narrow set of cultural ideals — like
productivity, optimism, and staying awake. If it turns out that
what we’re trying to ‘cure’ is what makes us uniquely human — and
also uniquely ourselves — it may be time for a second opinion. Or
at the very least, time to sleep on it.

Adam Overland is an Utne intern.

Where to Get Some Rest

Chris Dodge

Calm, Oregon

Idledale, Colorado

Lazy Lake, Florida

Peace, Alabama

Quiet Bay, Ontario

Rest Haven, Georgia

Siesta Key, Florida

Silent Island, Ontario

Slackwater, Pennsylvania

Sleepy Eye, Minnesota

Still, Oregon

Stop, Georgia

The 30-Second Nap

Peter Axt and Michaela Axt-Gadermann

From The Joy Of Laziness (Hunter House,
2003)

As you sleep, your body gains strength and your thoughts find
rest. Over the long term, most people are productive only when they
sleep an average of eight hours or more a night.

But if you need more rest than you are now getting, a 30-second
nap can give you a quick refill of energy. Though it may sound
unbelievable at first, this short break is often more useful than a
long afternoon nap. Although most people who have mastered the art
of the nap wake up feeling refreshed, many people actually feel
more tired after a midday snooze.

Here’s how to take a really short nap: Sit in a chair with your
feet firmly on the floor and rest your elbows/lower arms on your
knees while holding on to your key chain. Let your head hang down.
Try to shut yourself off. With a little practice, if you’re tired
you’ll fall into a brief sleep. The key chain is your alarm clock;
as soon as you fall asleep, your muscles will relax, and the keys
will fall to the floor, waking you back up. This brief sleep
provides a burst of energy until you can get the long rest you
need.

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