Anesthesia is not sleep

Q:  An acquaintance claimed she had such terrible insomnia that she was hospitalized, and the only way she could sleep was to be anesthetized.  I am dubious.  Is it true that anesthesia can replace actual sleep?

A:  The answer to your question is no, anesthesia is not the same as sleep, and cannot replace it.

General anesthesia produces more of a coma-like state rather than functioning as actual sleep.  One of the key differences is we awaken naturally and spontaneously from sleep, but not from anesthesia.   When anesthetized, we recover only when the drug is removed.  Natural sleep also differs in that we can be awakened to consciousness by loud noises or other disturbances, while general anesthesia produces more of an unresponsive neurological state similar to a coma.

Sleep is actually a very dynamic process both mentally and physically, as opposed to the “switched off” physiologic state produced by anesthesia.  During sleep, electrical activity shifts within our brains, and various chemicals naturally ebb and flow throughout our bodies in regular cycles of distinct sleep stages each night.

Of course anesthesia requires some sort of artificial drug to induce unconsciousness.  In great contrast, sleep as a natural physiologic process is largely controlled by the surprisingly simple environmental cue of light.

During normal sleep, our bodies are replenished with energy, children grow, and our immune systems are most capable of fighting off infections and illness.  Sleep also helps consolidate memory, facilitate learning, and re-set one’s emotional mood for a new day.  These important benefits are largely absent or reduced significantly during the unconscious state produced by anesthesia.

The difference between sleep and anesthesia was dramatically evidenced in the death of entertainer Michael Jackson.  Jackson was using propofol, a powerful anesthetic, to treat his chronic insomnia.  While his death was found to be caused by overdose, testimony from his associates and friends also showed that he was deteriorating in the days before his death, and this could have been caused at least in part from substituting anesthesia for actual sleep.

So anesthesia cannot replace sleep.  A better approach to treating insomnia is to focus on the true underlying root causes, because sleep is invariably only the symptom.  Forcing sleep by any means, including sleeping pills, typically only addresses the symptom and unfortunately the true root causes remain untreated.

There are better ways, and one of the very best is contained in cognitive behavioral therapy specifically designed for sleep.  A good CBT-based sleep training program contains methods that help most people.  Many who try CBT become normal sleepers again.

For more information on CBT for sleep, or to ask a sleep question, feel free to contact us.

Explore posts in the same categories: Health, Insomnia, sleep

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One Comment on “Anesthesia is not sleep”


  1. […] be aware that sedation is not the same as sleep.  Anesthesia produces more of a “switched off” physiologic state, whereas natural […]


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