As the pandemic rolls on, even the sweet escape of sleep has eluded me. While I often deal with bouts of insomnia, in the past I’ve let them run their course and usually find myself back to normal in a couple of weeks. But not this year. This year my insomnia, like everything else, has been “unprecedented”.
Yes, I’ve tried exercising more, cutting out screen time before bed, eating at more regular times, waking up more consistently, and all those other things people suggest. But anyone who has tried to make major lifestyle changes will tell you it’s hard, and between that and continuing lack of sleep I was miserable. So I decided to road test some sleeping pills instead—from over-the-counter supplements to heavy prescription meds—to see if one, or a combination of several, might help me get a reasonable night’s sleep.
Anyone who has experienced jet lag has probably heard of melatonin tablets, as they’re often suggested as a way to recalibrate your body clock in a new time zone. Melatonin itself is a hormone produced by the pineal gland which helps regulate the body’s sleep cycle: more of it in your system makes you drowsy, less of it helps the body wake up. It also has the added advantage of being non-addictive, so I thought it was a good place to start.
A friend gave me a couple of her 10mg tablets, and said I should take one half an hour before planning on sleeping. I let it dissolve on my tongue around 1 AM, then set up a sleep tracker on my phone and settled in at 1:30.
Before long I was in that semi-lucid pre-sleep stage, but felt alert again if I shifted my weight even slightly. Nonetheless, I drifted off around 2.15 AM, which is good for me, but the sleep was fairly light. I found myself waking up from vivid dreams every hour or two, and by the time my alarm went off at 9:30 I felt like I hadn’t rested well. Nothing that two hours of extra snoozing couldn’t sort out, but not exactly what I was hoping for.
Zinc magnesium aspartate, or ZMA, was recommended to me by a friend who said he took it to help him sleep after heavy workouts. As a nutritional supplement it seemed a pretty harmless thing to try.
My experience was a little more mixed than my friend’s. I took one of the capsules an hour before bed, and lay awake for a little over an hour thinking it would have worked better if I’d got some exercise earlier in the day. Without a doubt though, this was the deepest, most rejuvenating sleep I’d had in months. I woke up at 9:30 feeling refreshed, but thought I’d still try to sneak in a half hour snooze before facing the day. After 10 minutes I realised I was totally awake and without any of the usual groggy-nausea I usually get, so I surprised myself by getting up.
The pharmacist who recommended Restavit explained that its key ingredient, doxylamine succinate, is actually an anti-histamine that causes heavy drowsiness as a side-effect. I had some reservations about this one: friends who had had it before told me that the day after they’d felt either groggy or anxious. So with a little trepidation about what tomorrow might bring, I took one of the 25mg pills 20 minutes before bed, as suggested, and snuggled up.
The drowsiness started about 15 minutes in, and my sleep tracker says I was in snoozeville not long after. But I know I was lying motionless, debating whether the slight pressure in my bladder was growing and wondering if I left it would I piss myself in the middle of the night. The need outweighed the risks about an hour later, and afterwards I slept uninterrupted until 9:30. But the grogginess upon waking, man: I felt like I’d had two hours sleep instead of seven. I switched off my alarm and, without meaning to, slept for another four hours. I think I might chuck out the Restavit.
A friend of mine was kind enough to donate two of her prescription zopiclone, commonly known as Imovane, to my experiment. There’s a lot of research backing this drug’s ability to treat insomnia, so I was looking forward to trying it out.
Just one of the little 7.5mg fellas knocked me out within 15 minutes of closing my eyes, and my sleep tracker says I spent more time in deep sleep than any other night I’ve measured. I was woken up once by a passing garbage truck, but apart from that I was dead to the world. My sleep tracker also said I snored for 40 minutes throughout the night, though—about four times the amount I otherwise would—so while this was pretty good for me, I probably wouldn’t take it when my partner was staying over.
Ah, benzodiazepines. Many a big night has been brought to a restful end by one of the many -pams out there, but this would be my first time taking one for sleep while sober, so I had high hopes for its effectiveness.
I washed down the tiny 10mg tablet about 30 minutes before bed, and by the time I switched off the light I was already feeling the effects: a growing, gentle lulling that made my body feel relaxed and my mind calm, and a total lack of interest in rolling over—both of which seemed tailor-made to deal with my biggest issues getting to sleep. Within nine minutes I was out.
After just under eight hours of sleep I’d only woken up twice and spent most of the night in a deep, restful slumber. My only regret about Temazepam is that it’s not easy to get because it’s highly addictive. On those very bad nights where nothing else seems to be working and the next day requires me to have my head screwed on though, I can see myself reaching for this.
The mix and match
Seeing as ZMA and melatonin both seemed to work in a complimentary way for me, and they’re relatively easy to procure, I thought I’d give them a go together. In fact, I held pretty high hopes for this combo: one study on insomniacs taking zinc, magnesium and melatonin found they got to sleep faster and slept better than those using a placebo.
Sadly, it wasn’t the silver bullet I was hoping for. Even though I did feel tired after taking both, I couldn’t get comfortable and tossed and turned for an hour before nodding off. What followed was a relatively deep sleep, but according to the tracker it wasn’t quite as deep as when I’d had the ZMA alone, and I woke up feeling groggy.
So what did I learn? Well, nothing is perfect. Perhaps that’s why nearly one in three adults still regularly have issues with insomnia: there’s no miracle pill that’s going to totally negate the effects without some sort of consequence. For me there were some small successes, but long term I’m thinking the hard and boring way of lifestyle changes and good pre-sleep habits might actually be the smartest way forward—with a couple of heavy pharmaceuticals in the bedside drawer, just in case.
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