When Insomnia Turns Deadly!


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

It’s hard to believe it has been nearly nine years since we lost Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. I think we were all shocked when the story of his death flooded the news on June 25, 2009. He was only 50-years-old when he died.

According to one report the superstar died because of a fatal cocktail of medications in his system, most notably an excessive amount of propofol.

And it’s easy to just chalk Jackson’s death up to another unfortunate drug overdose we seem to see too often in the entertainment industry. However, we need to acknowledge that one of the reasons for his death was because he could not get sufficient quality sleep and suffered from unbearable insomnia.

Reportedly, Jackson’s “fatal search for sleep” lead him to take propofol and other drugs because he was convinced that doing this was the only thing that would relieve him of his insomnia. Propofol is by no means a sleep aid. It is an anesthetic, and Jackson was using this medication for an entirely different purpose.

“Jackson allegedly asked Lee [his nurse at the time], who had been treating him with vitamins since early February [of 2009], to find an anesthesiologist who could put him to sleep him with the surgical anesthetic propofol. Lee refused, warning him it was unsafe.”

As a result of his nurse refusing to treat him with propofol, Jackson put his care in the hands of Dr. Conrad Murray. Murray stated he infused Jackson with “propofol every night for two months to treat his insomnia.”

He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2011 after Jackson’s death. Murray served two years in jail and was released in 2013.     

“Unlike other sedatives, this drug [propofol] has an extraordinarily narrow safety margin. It changes the body's state very rapidly so that the patient will go unconscious and stop breathing,” said Dr. Beverly Phillip, in one report.

“It's very difficult to administer safely even in the most controlled settings.”

It is true that good nutrition and certain vitamins and minerals, like magnesium, may help us get a good night’s rest. But Jackson, who had reportedly took propofol earlier in his life during a 1997 tour, was adamant about taking the medicine once again.

Before his death, he was on a very busy tour schedule and was believed to be getting only five hours of sleep a night. Ideally, an adult should get 7-9 hours of sleep.

So if you think about it, Jackson died trying to get a good night’s sleep. And sleep is that important. Sleep is “essential for optimal physical health, immune function, mental health, and cognition,” reports the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

According to the NIH, the “way you feel while you're awake depends in part on what happens while you're sleeping. During sleep, your body is working to support healthy brain function and maintain your physical health. .  .The damage from sleep deficiency can occur in an instant (such as a car crash), or it can harm you over time. For example, ongoing sleep deficiency can raise your risk for some chronic health problems. It also can affect how well you think, react, work, learn, and get along with others.”

Jackson had insomnia, and sometimes we confuse sleep insufficiency with insomnia. Both conditions include sleep deprivation or decreased quantity of sleep. However, sleep insufficiency may be the result of work responsibilities or a choice to have less sleep during a given night. Sleep-deprived individuals will rapidly fall asleep if given the opportunity.  

Individuals with insomnia generally have adequate time and opportunity to sleep but have difficulty falling asleep even though they feel fatigued during the day. They may also have difficulty maintaining sleep or returning to sleep after waking up.

Insomnia is reportedly one of the most common medical complaints, generating in excess of five million medical office visits each year in the United States. Patients with insomnia are usually unhappy with the quality of their lives and report increased fatigue, sleepiness, confusion, tension, anxiety and depression.  

Some suggestions to be proactive about preventing insomnia?

  • Nutrition. When it comes to insomnia, good nutrition is important. In addition to magnesium, calcium, vitamin D and iron are additional nutrients that may help you fall asleep and maintain a restful state throughout the night. You can also try eating certain foods, like cherries, which contain melatonin (the sleep hormone).
  • Exercise. “Although the exact mechanisms are unknown, there are many possibilities for how exercise may reduce insomnia severity,” according to the National Sleep Foundation. “One way may be by the body-heating effects of exercise, especially when performed in the afternoon or later. Exercise triggers an increase in body temperature, and the post-exercise drop in temperature may promote falling asleep. Exercise may also reduce insomnia by decreasing arousal, anxiety and depressive symptoms.” In addition to this, maintaining a healthy weight is key in getting good sleep.
  • Turn it off. Electronic devices before bed are never a good idea. Resist the temptation to scroll through social media feeds and check emails right before bed. And remind your teens to do the same.
  • Watch your caffeine intake. Excessive caffeine consumption may also disrupt your sleep, especially if you drink it later in the day. Try to limit your caffeine intake to earlier in the day if you need your coffee fix.
  • Avoid alcohol near bedtime. While alcohol use does not appear to affect sleep duration, at least one study has reported that alcohol use (average 2.2 drinks per day) has a negative association with sleep quality.
  • Avoid daytime naps, especially if they are longer than 20 to 30 minutes or occur late in the day.
  • Get a Nutritional Test. Nutrient testing will generally identify whether the nutrients necessary to help you sleep are present in the right balance in your bodies.

What about Melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone that is normally produced by our bodies and is associated with healthy sleep. As we age, our bodies generally produce less melatonin. And by the age of 70, we produce only about a quarter of what we produced when we were younger. As a result, melatonin is sometimes prescribed as a supplement to account for this age associated decline.

Melatonin may also be prescribed for a short period of three months for certain patients with insomnia. However, it is important to discuss these issues with a competent healthcare professional after you have disclosed your sleep difficulties.  

Finally, never self-medicate or use drugs, like sedatives and opioids, to help you sleep. As we can see in the tragic story of Michael Jackson’s death, doing this may make you fall asleep but not get healthy sleep. It may even cost you your life.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, health care attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.   


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