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SLEEP Rx || Mother’s Little Helper: Things you should know

Worry and stress are as ubiquitous to the parenting landscape as stepping on Legos, cleaning out Cheerios from the backseat of the car, and dealing with seemingly endless bouts of insomnia and sleep deprivation.

Some parents find they are overwhelmed with the burdens of managing family life, especially if they are working part- or full-time, volunteering in the community, or caring for elderly parents as well. Exhausted is perhaps too lightweight a term to describe what it can feel like trying to stay on top of all the tasks that today’s parenting lifestyles demand.

Getting enough sleep is perhaps the best way to manage these kinds of day-to-day stresses. But sleep takes time, and in today’s time-pressed society, it’s the first thing sacrificed to keep up with the demands of raising kids. Perhaps cutting back on commitments or getting more outside help is one solution? This probably won’t happen until the opportunity to “enhance” our performance with drugs becomes less socially acceptable.

This is not a new problem. Back in the old days, overwhelmed parents might have taken a nip at the cooking sherry to get through the nerves of the day. Even a cigarette or a pot of coffee could help with exhaustion.

But we’ve moved on from there in the 21st century. Valium (“Mother’s Little Helper”) became the housewife’s drug of choice in the 1960s as more women entered the workforce or became single parents. Since then, other prescription medicines have become a socially normalized way for parents to find the energy or decompression they need to get through the day.

Opiates like OxyContin or Vicodin, sedatives (think Xanax), even stimulates like Adderall or Ritalin are Mother’s latest Little Helpers. Even energy drinks, used purposefully in excess, have become the new amped up alternative to old-fashioned coffee drinking.

How does this kind of “behavior modification” during the day influence sleep?

Too many anti-anxiety or pain-relieving prescription medications (sedatives and opiates) during the day can seriously throw the body’s sleep drive off kilter at night, leading to insomnia, which leads to excessive daytime sleepiness. You can see what a terribly endless loop of poor sleep habits might emerge.

Whether used to depress the central nervous system or to manage pain, sedatives and opiates also disrupt sleep architecture, interfere with critical REM sleep and the deeper non-REM stages where all healing and release of human growth hormone occur (read more).

These drugs are not meant to be used on a daily basis, but that doesn’t stop a lot of people form using them regularly. And that means the chance of becoming dependent on them is high. If parents opt to stop using these drugs, they can throw their bodies into a terrible state of withdrawal that will further mess with their sleep staging. Also, risky drug interactions (including with alcohol or marijuana) are further reason to avoid using these anti-anxiety or pain management meds off label.

In addition, consider this: many people have sleep breathing issues they are not aware of; taking these meds can be extremely dangerous for them because, while they sleep, the upper airway may become so relaxed that severe sleep apnea and respiratory distress can be a direct result.

Too many stimulants, by the very nature of what they do, will lead to wakefulness at night as well. If one is advised to not have caffeine products after 5pm, just imagine how hard it will be for users of stimulants taken in the late afternoon to fall asleep at a decent hour? Suddenly the kids are in bed, the house is clean, the bills are paid, and it’s now 3am and Mom still can’t sleep.

Ongoing sleep deprivation from regular stimulant use is guaranteed to show up later in countless dangerous ways: motor vehicle accidents, major errors in judgment during times of stress, the exacerbation of other underlying health conditions and other problems which can only serve to make family life even harder–for everyone.

Parents in 2014 need to rethink sleep as a critical best practice for relieving anxiety and stress. Sleep, exercise and meditation together can work to give the body ample opportunities to detox, heal and manage the daily stresses of parenthood. A strong, well-rested mind and body are always going to manage the challenges of life better than a mind and body which relies on enhancing drugs to achieve artificial energy or relaxation.

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