Desperately seeking a good night's sleep, insomniacs spend more money on alcohol than medical help and sleep aids combined, according to a study published today in the journal Sleep. But experts say turning to the bottle is the last thing you should do if you can't fall asleep at night.
The study, led by Meagan Daley, a professor of psychology and business at Laval University in Quebec, found that insomniacs in that Canadian province spend an annual $275 million ($340 million Canadian) on alcohol to lull them to sleep at night compared with $14.7 million on over-the-counter and prescription sleep meds and $69.4 million on insomnia-related health care consultations. Simply put, the sleepless in Quebec spend over three times more on alcoholic "sleeping aids" than on medical interventions specifically designed to promote z's—even though alcohol is more expensive.
"Generic versions of sleep medications are a few cents a pill," Daley says. "Even the regular main brand sleep medications are cheaper than taking a drink or two."
What's more, alcohol doesn't help you snooze. Quite the contrary. It actually exacerbates symptoms of insomnia, says Maher Karam-Hage, an addiction psychiatrist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. For most people, drinking a glass of wine with dinner will not compromise a good night's sleep, but three to four drinks before bed can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night, he says.
"Drinking on a long-term basis can lead to suppression of deep sleep," says Karam-Hage, noting that type of sleep is responsible for the "refreshing effect" that a good night's rest has on the mind and body. "The net effect is that you feel tired all the time." In contrast, most of the newer Rx sleeping pills on the market, such as Ambien and Sonata, do not appear to cause late-night sleep interruptions, according to Karam-Hage. These meds induce sleep and may help a person get seven to eight hours of shut-eye, but generally should not be taken longer than seven to 10 days and may have side effects. Karam-Hage says that people who have mild sleep issues and shun meds might try getting up at the same time daily. He says they might also try to hit the hay at the same time nightly but that doing so is not as critical as waking at a consistent hour.
Do you like to power naps? Keep them under 10 minutes, Karam-Hage suggests, noting that longer naps can keep you up at night. About 10 percent of people in the developing world suffer from chronic insomnia, a condition in which a person's life is negatively impacted because he or she sleeps less than six hours for at least three nights a week for a minimum of one month, Daley says. This could result from difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking prematurely. "A third of the population [has] sleeping problems," she says. "Sleep problems are huge."
Daley's study was designed to examine the economic toll of insomnia. The researchers estimated that the total cost of this condition in Quebec is a whopping $5.4 billion ($6.6 billion Canadian)—about 1 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The largest proportion – 76 percent -- of costs ($4 billion) stemmed from lost productivity hours.