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Putting Sleep to Bed


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When I was about 10, I asked my mum – ‘Why do we have to sleep? We only live once and we spend half of it asleep!’ An obvious philosopher from early on, I found the idea we spend half of our ‘short’ lives asleep bizarre. Maybe they wouldn’t be so ‘short’ were we not snoring our way through half of it. The thought stuck with me, and to this day I often find myself imagining all the things that could get done and how much time could be saved dif only we didn’t spend so long under the duvet!

Now, I am not for one minute doubting the merits of a lovely Saturday lie in, but imagine a world where you could not only survive, but excel on an hour or two of sleep a night. This is the latest  that the pharmaceutical world has to offer us . By popping a simple pill users can survive on as little as an hour a night or simply bypass sleep altogether all while enhancing concentration and focus. All this, without the jitters and eventual crash that can follow a Starbucks binge. The drug is called Modafinil and before you get your shoes on to head to Boots – Modafinil is illegal without a prescription and unregulated. So why and how are hundreds of students, including third year English student Joel, turning to this new ‘wonder drug’?

Modafinil was first manufactured In France in the 1990s. It is a central-nervous-system stimulant used originally used in the treatment of narcolepsy and depression. Of course, when correctly prescribed and administered by a qualified doctor, the drug is be safe, appropraite and beneficial. However, it seems increasingly, students like Joel are taking the role of doctor and self prescribing.

‘There’s been a lot of talk of people at Oxford and Cambridge doing it, so I thought if they can do it, why can’t I?’

‘I bought it off the internet no problem. It’s about £1 a hit which is very good value! Considering you get 4 to 6 hours out of a small dose – I guess with a bigger dose you get longer than that. It’s incredibly easy to buy – all you need is a credit card and that’s about it. It comes through the post, they shipped it out from India I think.’ Joel told me.

In this age everything can be solved by a pill. You get a headache, you take a pill, you’re too fat, you take a pill, you can’t sleep, you take a pill. So why not take a pill so you don’t have to sleep at all?  Modafinil remains illegal in the UK without a prescription. Yet people, like Joel, continue to use the drug unregulated. Joel explained his decision to me -

‘I’d heard a lot of people saying they felt really clever on it – but I didn’t find this was the case. It was more no need to go and do something else – I had complete focus on the task in hand with no distractions. There were certain parts of it where I felt over stimulated and just wanted to take a little break. My heart rate felt like it was going a little too high, but nothing too scary. The only negative I really see about it is a tiny bit of agitation. But that happens on lots of drugs, with Modafinil it wasn’t as pronounced. I would probably take it again. It’s becoming more and more popular as people find out about it – it’s becoming more wide spread.”

“I think it’s definitely better than any alternatives. I know some people are prescribed Ritalin and then that gets sold on – I think that has a much more negative effect whereas this seemed more gentle. The potential for abuse on it is pretty low – it’s not something you could go out on. The only problem I can think of is that, if people take it for long periods of time, they can become slightly dependant on it. People say it’s unethical but I just compare it to the fact that some people go to state school and others to private school. The fact your spending money to gain an advantage; I think that’s deeply engrained in the system now anyway.”

Joel experienced little in terms of side effects, however, with many unsure of the correct dosage, horror stories have predictably emerged. Some users claim to have passed out after using the drug for extended time and also report uncontrollable nose bleeds. Bizarre side effects include flatulence and pee that can only be described as smelling particularly unsavoury.

Surely these physical side effects suggest Modafinil cannot be doing great things to your insides. However, as Joel mentioned, Modafinil is unlikely to be abused. It promotes no ’high’ or mood enhancement. Yet this doesn’t prevent users from taking it for extended periods of time, upping the recommended dosage as they please. It seems that this self administration is where the problems lie.

The manufacturers insist the drug is to aid sleep disorders such as narcolepsy yet all the while its popularity as a ‘lifestyle’ drug is irretrievably rising. The French government indicated that the Foreign Legion used Modafinil during certain covert operations. The United States military have reportedly investigated Modafinil for use by its soldiers, who often have to be awake and alert for 72 hours at a time. That’s like staying awake from Monday until Thursday. One study on helicopter pilots suggested that 600 mg of Modafinil given in three doses can be used to keep pilots alert with only 8 hours of sleep in an 88 hour period.

This does not alter sleep’s status as undeniably natural. Removing it in part or fully is surely liberating us from nature. ‘Liberating’ may be too positive a word. This idea of ‘sleep at our convenience’, that we can override our body clock, is deeply unsettling. Just think of the inevitable hell that is ‘jet lag’, sn experience where the body clock has never felt so in charge. To dabble with something so innate to us cannot be good for us, health-wise, in the long term.

Modafininil cannot be providing us with a long term solution, giving us the goods that sleep provides. There must be some sort of ‘sleep debt’ that users will eventually have to pay off. New classes of sleeping pills are on the horizons that claim to deliver what feels like 8 hours sleep in half the time. Note the word ‘feel’ – so a pill can mimic the real thing. It doesn’t make it synonymous, just like supermarket brand cola is never going to be Coke.

Yet, after posing these concerns to Joel, he claimed users do not have to pay back any "sleep debt". Normally if you stayed awake for 48 hours straight you would have to sleep for about 16 hours to catch up but with Modafinil:

 “It somehow allowed me to catch up with only 8 hours or so” said Joel.

The instinctive response is, ‘But how?’  but the answer is no one really knows! The drug company that produces Modfinil thinks it understands the drug, but is shifty when it comes to details. Like other stimulant drugs, Modafinil prevents nerve cells from reabsorbing the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine once they release it into the brain. The difference being it does this without producing the addictive highs and painful crashes associated with most stimulants. But the workings of it remain a mystery. Does this not worry Joel?

‘That’s always a worry. I do worry it could have effects I’m unaware of – as with anything. At the end of the day it’s a risk I think is worth taking. Just because of the ease at which it helped me with my work. I think the trade off seems way worth it I think with any kind of drug like this or one taking for recreational use there’s always going to be more hype about it than is possibly the case.’

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