FIFTEEN to 20 million Americans suffer chronically from the tyranny of insomnia. Over-the-counter medications, the first line of defense, have little impact on sleep beyond placebo effects. Ironically, antihistamines in them can increase daytime drowsiness and may enhance the person's belief that sleep is getting worse. When these drugs fail, the chronic sufferer often turns to the physician, who is expected to be ready with medically proved answers.
Twenty-seven million prescriptions were written for hypnotics in 1976. Barbiturates, accounting for 20% of these prescriptions, lead to a predictable cycle of dependence, tolerance, and escalating doses. These medications also disrupt the sleep structure. Rapid eye movement (REM) and slow-wave sleep (stages 3 and 4) are suppressed, and the EEG shows increased β activity. Physical and psychological dependence, withdrawal reactions, and "REM rebound" reactions (severe nightmares and sleep more disturbed than before taking medication) often accompany attempts to stop using these drugs.