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Fighting Fatigue

Aired July 1, 2003 - 20:16   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: How many times have you caught yourself saying there just isn't enough time in the day to accomplish everything you need to do, including sleep? Well, you're not alone.
According to today's "Wall Street Journal," a third of us get by on six hours or less of sleep a night. So what is medical science doing to help us get more sleep or be more alert when we're awake? Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us from CNN Center in Atlanta. He is not sleep deprived tonight. He's feeling pretty good. But how desperate are Americans to sleep?

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, this is something that's one of the most widely studied things in medicine. Almost half of the Americans say they want to get more sleep. And if you look at the charts, actually evaluating this, measuring this from the early 1940s until now you'll find that the percentages have gradually increased in the fewer number of hours that Americans are getting sleep. So certainly it's a huge issue.

And another way that you can see that it's a huge issue is in the pharmaceutical industry. There are two types of drugs when you're talking about sleep: drugs that help you sleep, and drugs that help you stay awake because you're not getting enough sleep or you can't sleep enough. This is a billion-dollar industry. Ambien is one of the medications they talk about more than anything else. Became wildly popular about 10 years ago because it helped you sleep without making you groggy.

And now there's all sorts of different medications coming down the pipeline. People are realizing what a huge industry this might be. And there are drugs that actually help you stay awake, sometimes for days at a time. So I think Americans are very desperate about their sleep issues, Paula.

ZAHN: So doctor, let's talk for a moment about those drugs that help you sleep. When you take them, is the quality of sleep the same as natural sleep?

GUPTA: Well, that is the big question. This is something they can actually measure. There are different sleep/wake cycles and there are sleep/wake cycles that are actually better than others, where you're actually getting more rest. This particular medication, Ambien, became popular because it actually put people into the more appropriate, better sleep/wake cycle, sleep cycle, I should say, more appropriately than other medications such as valium and other medications that gave you less fit sleep and made you feel more groggy the next day.

So they can be pretty good. They have very few side effects on these medications and can be almost equitable to a good night's sleep.

ZAHN: And also talk about this class of drugs they're developing -- I guess there's one drug soon to be on the market that could actually help you stay awake for three days?

GUPTA: This is a wildly exciting part of sleep research, most sleep researchers will tell you. The medication you're talking about, provigil, appropriately named, keeping you vigil for up to three days, as you said,

It 's been out there for a little bit of time now. It gained a little bit of attention when it was first released and certainly people like you and me probably could have used it at certain times for staying awake three days. The exciting part about this medication is that it appears to keep -- it's not just a stimulant that sort of just keeps you awake but you're essentially useless, besides being awake. It actually keeps you alert as well for up to three days. At least that's what the trials are showing.

The scary part about it -- there has to be a downside to everything. The scary side is that people really don't know exactly how it works, which is why it's only still recommended for patients with narcolepsy, people who have a hard -- people who fall asleep at inopportune times really to try and keep them awake. It's not really for prime time as of yet because they don't know exactly what the long-term effects of this medication are. But it is pretty exciting.

ZAHN: And can you tell us in a general sense what the side effects are of sleeping pills, no matter how potent they are?

GUPTA: Well, most of the sleeping pills and what people have been concerned about for some time is that they actually might make you feel too groggy the next day. It's all based on what's known as a half life of the pill.

Ideally, what you'd like is for that pill to start just not too long after you take it and then to be completely gone from your system when you wake up. Unfortunately, it's hard to regulate a lot of sleeping pills like that. So even you wake up, a little bit of the sleeping pill still lingering around and you sort of get that funk, you feel a little -- you know, feel like you're in a little bit of a daze when you wake up, and that's obviously not ideal.

Again, Ambien is one of the medications that has less of those sorts of effects because it has that quick on/off mechanism, and that's why people have liked it.

ZAHN: Guess what? We both get a nap because we're going to take a short commercial break here.

GUPTA: All right. ZAHN: For two minutes or so. Thanks for clearing up some of the confusions surrounding that. It's interesting, because there's so much controversy surrounding these pills. Some people suggesting we should just take our -- change our behavior and forget the pills. But we'll debate this for many years to come, I guess.

GUPTA: We'll keep an eye on it. Yes. Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: Have a good night's sleep, Sanjay.

GUPTA: You, too.


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