Just one or two pills of ecstasy can reset your body clock and have lasting effects on your ability to sleep peacefully, new research suggest.
Rowan Ogeil, of Monash University, and colleagues, report their findings in a recent issue of Psychopharmacology.
"Of course ecstasy affects your sleep because it's a stimulant," says Ogeil, who did the research as part of a recently completed PhD, under the supervision of Dr Jillian Broadbear. "But we've shown is it has lasting effects and that the body clock is involved."
Australia holds the record for the highest proportion of ecstasy (MDMA) users. One in 10 people aged 20 to 29 years report using the drug in the past year, and it is the second most popular drug after cannabis.
Previous surveys have found that 70 per cent of ecstasy users report having disturbed sleep, says Ogeil.
Studies from animals fed high doses of the drug have suggested ecstasy disturbs the body clock.
But Ogeil and colleagues have been the first to look at the direct effect on the body clock of low recreational doses of ecstasy.
"Most ecstasy users are infrequent. They take one or two pills once a month or less," says Ogeil.
In the first study of its kind, Ogeil and colleagues tested what happened when lab rats were given the rough equivalent of just 1 or 2 pills.
They injected 72 rats once, either with ecstasy or saline solution at different times of the day and then examined the expression of body clock genes.
The researchers found ecstasy changed the activity of the Per1 and Per2 genes, which are directly involved in generating and maintaining the body clock rhythm.
"MDMA was able to induce these genes, or turn them on when they should be off," says Ogeil.
He says while the body clock is constantly being reset by our exposure to light, the new findings suggest that if you take ecstasy you are going to push that reset button at the wrong time.
The researchers also found evidence that rats given the single dose of ecstasy had disturbed sleep for the whole length of the two-week study, suggesting ecstasy could have a long-term effect.
Ogeil says questionnaires suggest that people have been affected months after taking ecstasy.
"Even months after stopping the party lifestyle they were still having problems," he says.
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Ogeil says the lingering effect of ecstasy on sleep is not fully recognised and someone who took a pill some time ago may not realise it is contributing to sleep problems.
It may also be responsible for mood disorders, which themselves are linked to sleep disturbance, he says.
In a more recent study published online in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry Ogeil and colleagues investigated the kind of sleep disturbances suffered by ecstasy uses.
Rather than ask ecstasy users themselves, however, they asked the partners or roommates of 157 users aged in their mid-20s.
In particular, study participants reported loud snoring and leg twitching by their ecstasy-using partners and roommates.
These are evidence of sleep disturbance that an ecstasy user themselves may not be aware of, says Ogeil.
He suggests the study highlights the usefulness of information from partners and roommates when trying to understand sleep disturbance in ecstasy users.