On Sleep and Drugs

by Matthew Stollak on Tuesday, January 15, 2013

For many of us, there just isn't enough hours in the day.  Pressures to keep up with work deadlines, taking care of the kids, and, in this modern technological world, being mobile means being on call 24/7, and something has to give.  This usually means less hours of sleep, followed by copious amounts of coffee, Diet Mountain Dew, and 5-hour Energy Drinks.

Now, better living through chemistry strikes again with the new drug, Modafinil.

The newest wake-up pill has all of the benefits of caffeine and amphetamines with none of the down sides. It has elicited so few complaints of side effects from users -- they claim it has no side effects at all except for the occasional slight headache -- it's the closest thing to a miracle the pharmaceutical world has seen since Viagra, if Viagra didn't sometimes cause blindness, heart attacks and five-hour erections. It's called modafinil, and it's FDA-approved to treat narcolepsy. But the drug has gained a dedicated off-label following as a "lifestyle drug." Doctors all over the country are reporting record numbers of sudden narcoleptics showing up in their waiting rooms. (As it turns out, you can get diagnosed as a narcoleptic online.)

Unlike caffeine, which floods the body with dopamine (and the accompanying crash when it wears off), Modafinil has all the benefits of a cup of coffee, without the negatives.

One of the most mysterious things about modafinil, even in view of its multi-pronged, targeted approach to sleep avoidance, is that it appears to trigger no "sleep debt." People who stay awake for a day or two on modafinil report no need to catch up on sleep when the dose wears off. They can just sleep the usual seven or eight hours and get back in the game. People who take amphetamines typically need to sleep for half a day when the high wears off.

So, what will be the impact on the world of work if such a drug becomes more common place?

  • Will there be an expectation for salaried individuals to put in 18-hour days?
  • If people work longer hours, will that push unemployment even higher, as the need for more labor decreases?
Would you take Modafinil if it became available?

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