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Dangers of sleep aids resurface on anniversary of Michael Jackson's death

Dangers of medicinal sleep aids resurface on anniversary of Michael Jackson's death
Dangers of medicinal sleep aids resurface on anniversary of Michael Jackson's death
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the entertainment industry is remembering Michael Jackson on what is the 5th anniversary of his tragic death at the age of 50 due to complications born of what was proven to be a sustained and reckless nightly regimen of Propofol, an intravenously administered amnestic agent.

Since the King of Pop’s passing in 2009, new details have come to light surrounding Jackson’s unexpected passing. And they are startling, even in the world of an entertainment icon who was no stranger to shocking the public.

According to provocative comments from Dr. Charles Czeisler, a Harvard Medical School sleep expert who testified in the wrongful-death trial of concert promoter AEG Live, Michael Jackson may have been the only human being ever subjected to nearly two consecutive months of sleep deprivation.

"The symptoms that Mr. Jackson was exhibiting were consistent with what someone might expect to see of someone suffering from total sleep deprivation over a chronic period," Dr. Czeisler explained.

As a direct result of Propofol abuse, and the REM sleep that he was deprived of, Michael Jackson's mental and physical health deteriorated to such an alarming degree that some experts believe his death was inevitable even if the alleged Propofol overdose hadn't occurred on June 25th, 2009.

News of Jackson's severe sleep deprivation has sent shockwaves through the massive global population of sleep drug devotees. Although most insomniacs do not use Propofol, millions routinely rely upon a comprehensive array of prescription and over-the-counter medicinal aids that, while "safe," could still pose potential threats to one's health over time.

Physician, bestselling author, and acclaimed television host Dr. Mehmet Oz says many sleep aids succeed in getting people to sleep, but in the process, they often deprive users of REM sleep, which is vital to one's health on multiple levels.

"Even though sleeping pills can induce drowsiness, many don’t actually promote deep sleep or REM sleep," Dr. Oz says on his program’s blog. "REM sleep, one of five stages of your sleep cycle, is what many experts call 'restful sleep.' You dream during REM sleep and a reduction in REM sleep leads to a less restorative or less satisfying sleep. That's why one may not feel completely rested after taking a sleeping pill, even after 8 hours of sleep."

At high levels, side effects of any drug can be dangerous.

"Recently the FDA called for a reduction in the recommended dosage for zolpidem for women, most commonly found in Ambien, one of the most popular prescribed sleep aids," Dr. Oz explains. Taken to excess, for example, Ambien could cause amnesia, suppression of REM sleep, or breathing difficulties.

Perhaps just as disturbingly, abrupt cessation of the sleep aids at accelerated dosage levels could facilitate intense rebound insomnia.

Notwithstanding the reality that countless Americans responsibly use occasional sleep aids like Ambien without harm, the potentially negative impact on REM sleep caused by sleep-inducing medications used for prolonged periods is prompting a growing number of doctors, sleep specialists, and other medical experts to recommend taking technology to bed, not a pill bottle.

Last year, for example, a new mobile sleep app called Sleep Genius launched on iOS and Android and instantly drew stellar reviews and resounding praise from across the medical and scientific communities. Developed by experts in neuroscience, sleep, sound, and music, Sleep Genius has been celebrated as a game changer within the crowded sea of sleep apps that populate the world’s leading app stores.

The deployment of “pink noise” plays a key role in the app’s proprietary mix of algorithms, which work to effectively block out outside noise and create a virtual sound cocoon that wraps around the user. The impressive impact of Sleep Genius is just the latest noteworthy example of how innovative new sleep technologies can mitigate distracting noises and relax frenetic minds by slowing down one’s breath rate and heart rate, an ultimate sleep solution conducive to quality, restful sleep.

Ultimately, the greatest advantage that technology may carry over medication is safety.

"Many studies have also found connections between regularly taking sleep aids and an increased risk of death and cancer," Dr. Oz asserts. On the other hand, Dr. Kamran Fallahpour, a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at New York's Brain Resource Center, says apps like Sleep Genius are "all natural."

Regrettably, since Michael Jackson’s passing five years ago, the rate of over-the-counter and prescription sleep aid use has ballooned markedly. And that could spell disaster for an untold number of Americans down the road.

"Compared with non-users of sleeping pills,” Dr. Oz explains, “one study discovered that those who took 1 to 18 pills of any sleep aid or hypnotic medication per year had a greater than three-fold increased risk of early death. They also found that heavy hypnotic users were 35% more likely to develop a new cancer. There are no clear explanations for this connection; however, some studies have connected increased risks of suicide and risky behavior, like impaired driving, with the use of prescribed sleep aids."