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Smart sleepers act on the same sleep-inducing areas of the brain as do prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids, but they can help you get to sleep without posing the risk of serious side effects.

The class of sedative-hypnotic drugs—loosely known as sleeping pills or downers—are widely used in low doses to calm people during the day and in higher doses to help them sleep at night. Millions of people take sleeping pills every night and can't fall asleep without them. Every year, an untold number of people suffer health problems or die as a result of sedative-hypnotic abuse.

Barbituric acid, the grandfather of all sleeping pills, was discovered at the end of the Civil War. Since then, a number of derivatives have been marketed throughout the world. The first barbiturate sleeping drug, called barbital, was marketed in 1903, followed by phenobarbital in 1912.

Some barbiturates are metabolized slowly and remain in the body for weeks. Others are metabolized more quickly (in six to seven hours). These are the barbiturates most people take to fall asleep. They can make people feel and even look drunk, cause hangovers, and kill by putting the brain's respiratory center to sleep. They can also easily lead to addiction and unpleasant withdrawal syndromes, which are marked in some cases by convulsions and even death.

It is especially dangerous to mix barbiturates and alcohol because their depressant effects are additive. An ordinarily safe amount of alcohol or dose of barbiturate taken separately could be lethal if mixed.

Over-the-counter sleeping pills, used as directed, are somewhat safer than are prescription sedative-hypnotics, but are not without untoward effects. Like other pharmaceuticals, their abuse can lead to memory loss and hangover and can make driving or operating machinery hazardous. They can even cost you a great deal of money. Ivan Lendl, whose nutritional counselor I've been for a number of years, used a popular over-the-counter brand of sleeping pill to get to sleep the night before the 1990 U.S. Open Tennis finals. The next morning's hangover, and the consequent brain-dulling side effects of the sleep aid, may have cost him the championship.

People who use prescription or over-the-counter sleeping aids should be aware that these drugs are strong depressants that can cause unpleasant side effects and dependence and, when abused, even death. Smart-nutrient sleepers provide much safer and equally effective alternatives to prescription sedatives.