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Heath Ledger's Tragedy: Can You OD on Sleeping Pills?

The news of actor Heath Ledger’s death this past week is an incredibly sad story, especially given the news that he had a troubled sleep life and seemingly fought hard to overcome his problems. When the news reported that the sleeping pill Lunesta was found in his apartment, my hope was that people didn’t automatically assume he yanked the rug out from under himself by downing a litany of Lunesta. Apparently, other meds were in the mix, and it will take time for the toxicology report to (hopefully) pinpoint exactly what took his life.

I hear echoes of the Anna Nicole Smith case, who died last year of “combined drug intoxication” with the sleeping medication chloral hydrate, which was found in her system, being the “major component.” (No illegal drugs were found in her body.) Chloral hydrate is of the old-fashioned kind of sleeping pills; it’s a strong sedative–the same one speculated to be responsible (potentially) for Marilyn Monroe’s premature death. Granted, I don’t think it was ever determined exactly what killed Marilyn.

With today’s new class of sleeping pills it’s highly unlikely that you can overdose to the point that you kill yourself (there is one paper showing someone took 180 10mg tabs of Ambien and woke up 4 days later, no problems).

My point, however, isn’t to remark so much on the sleeping pill topic, but rather to expound on the effects poor sleep can have on the body — both mentally and physically. When you don’t sleep, you don’t make good decisions. You may not see an obvious solution while under the influence of serious sleep deprivation, especially when it’s chronic and accumulates over time. And while risk-taking behavior may not change, what does is your ability to be concerned about it. Moreover, anxiety levels can intensify to the point you feel overwhelmed. At the same time, your immune system takes a dive (Mr. Ledger reportedly may have been suffering from pneumonia), and your reaction time is slowed.

And if you ask me, I think this is all a perfect recipe for disaster — especially when one can get hold of multiple medications (even if they are prescribed by a doctor). Millions of Americans suffer from sleep deprivation for a multitude of reasons, some of them more serious than others. Mr. Ledger’s death is a wake-up call to those who are suffering to seek help from qualified sleep specialists — before it gets so out of hand as to be too late. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends and fans. His artistry will be missed.

The other lesson in this tragedy is the fact we are not resilient, no matter our youth. I don’t think people should act so “shocked” that a 28-year-old can die at the mercy of sleep deprivation as a root cause. Assault the body with enough stuff — even if it all starts with just a cycle of poor sleep–and the body will rebel in some way.

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