Exhaustion can kill you

February 19, 2008
Volume 05    |   Issue 07

Heath Ledger was exhausted. He hadn?t slept more than a few hours during the past week. In desperation, he reached for some prescription drugs to help him sleep. When they didn?t work, he took some more. And other drugs, as well. We all know the tragic outcome.

The same thing happened to Cass Elliott, the talented singer from the Mamas and Papas. Cass and I had a friend in common who called me hysterically the morning Cass died.

Cass was in the habit of taking barbiturates to go to sleep and amphetamines to wake up.

While she ate a late night sandwich, she took her usual barbiturates to help her sleep. And she slept. Permanently. Cass Elliot fell asleep and choked on a ham sandwich. But she really died from prescription drugs.

Many of you know what it feels like to be desperate for sleep, like Heath Ledger. Some of you get into a pattern of taking drugs to help you sleep, like Mama Cass. All this is unnecessary. If they had been my patients, I would have given them safer options to try.

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Heath Ledger had told a friend that his mind wouldn?t turn off, and that?s why he couldn?t sleep. I would have suggested he take a tincture of Kava (Piper methysticum), an herb that turns off the incessant chattering that keeps running through an overactive mind. You can find this in just about any health food store. You might want to try adding 20 drops of Kava to a little water if your mind won?t let you sleep. I?ve used it for years and find it works beautifully.

I would have told Mama Cass to switch from pharmaceuticals to herbs like Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) for sleep and an extra cup of coffee or tea to wake up instead of relying on pills that can be abused. And to pay attention to whether or not she really needed anything at all. Prescription drugs are too dangerous to rely on for everyday waking and sleeping. They also have interactions you won?t find with many herbs.

This is a good opportunity for you to take a close look at all of your over-the-counter and prescription drugs. They may seem safe, but they?re not always. Large amounts of barbiturates can stop your heart, and the fatal amount differs from person-to-person. Some drugs react dangerously with each other - as happened to Heath Ledger.

Speak with your pharmacist to identify any potential harmful interactions between your drugs. Be absolutely clear about how much it?s safe to take and never go over that limit. Even if you?re exhausted.

Most important, reach out to friends or family for help if you feel exhausted, depressed, or ill. We all have times when we don?t think clearly and are tempted to reach for a pill or two. Or more. Unfortunately, those are our most dangerous times. Let us learn from Heath Ledger and Mama Cass that there are other options. Keep some of these options on hand.

Your voice of reason in Women's Health,



University of British Columbia

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