Lack of sleep is a widespread problem in
America. It not only affects people’s mental alertness, mood and ability to focus during the day, but also their long-term health. Chronic, long-term sleep disorders affect more than 40 million Americans and an additional 20 million people have occasional sleeping problems, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Stress-related insomnia, sleep disorders, lifestyle habits and the failure to establish and maintain a regular routine are all to blame. Getting enough sleep is an essential part of keeping the body healthy and avoiding chronic disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, insufficient sleep contributes to the development of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression. Getting a good night’s sleep is especially difficult if you suffer from a sleep disorder.
The most common sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea or the interruption of breathing during sleep, restless legs syndrome and narcolepsy.
Sleep problems can affect anyone at any age. However, certain conditions or risk factors — gender, middle age, a large neck circumference (17 inches or more for men; 16 inches or more for women), large tonsils or tongue, a small jaw bone, a family history of sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disease and nasal obstruction due to allergies, sinus problems or a deviated septum — may make getting a good night’s sleep more difficult.
Men are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea, according to health experts. However, women have two to three times the risk of insomnia, according to the National Sleep Foundation. One reason sleep apnea may be diagnosed more often in men, according to the NSF, is that sleep apnea in women is commonly misdiagnosed as depression, diabetes, hypertension, hypochondria, or several other health conditions. Sleep in women is also influenced by the menstrual cycle, biological life stage, stress level, health, mood, parental status, work hours and other life responsibilities.
As people age, sleep patterns change and sleep problems become even more common. A person may sleep less, experience fragmented sleep — dozing and waking in irregular patterns — or have more difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. These changes may also be caused by a chronic illness or medication. Also, as people age, our bodies produce less of the chemicals and hormones that help us sleep well, such as growth hormone and melatonin.
If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep or are experiencing daytime drowsiness, a sleep study can diagnose potential disorders and help with treatment. A sleep study is performed in a controlled environment while you sleep and is supervised by medical professionals trained in sleep disorders. Your body is observed and monitored to see what occurs during sleep, from snoring to halted breathing.
If you have a sleep disorder, it’s important to seek diagnosis and treatment. Treatment may be as simple as lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or quitting smoking, or taking certain medications such as a topical nasal decongestant.
Other treatment options may include surgery or the use of medical devices to help you breathe easier and sleep better. A continuous positive airway pressure device is commonly prescribed for people with moderate to severe sleep apnea. Consisting of a mask and air machine, a CPAP device delivers a steady, gentle stream of air to keep the tissues of the nose and throat open during sleep. Other helpful devices are a humidifier in the bedroom or special pillows to promote proper sleeping positions.
If you or your partner have symptoms of a sleep disorder, talk with your doctor about participating in a sleep study. Remember that this information is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor, but rather to increase awareness and help equip patients with information and facilitate conversations with your physician that will benefit your health.
Getting enough ZZZs
Adequate sleep is as important to good health as a nutritious diet and regular exercise. Here are a few tips to establishing and maintaining proper sleep habits for good rest and good health.
Set a schedule.
Try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day.
Exercise regularly (but not too late).
Establish a target of 30 minutes of exercise each day. Regular exercise helps promote good sleep, as long as it’s not too close to the time you turn in each night. Aim for completing your daily exercise at least five to six hours before bedtime.
Avoid late afternoon naps.
Napping after 3 p.m. — and for longer than an hour — can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.
Caffeinated beverages and smoking stimulate the nervous system and make falling asleep difficult. While alcohol may seem to relax you, it actually keeps the body in the lighter stages of sleep, making deep and restful sleep difficult.
Avoid large meals late at night.
Eating a large meal can cause indigestion, which interferes with sleep.
Create a relaxing bedtime ritual.
Try a warm bath, reading, listening to soft music or gentle stretching to wind down before bed. A bath can relax you, and the drop in body temperature you experience after getting out of the tub or shower may help you feel sleepy. Making these quiet activities a habit will signal to your body that it’s time for bed.
Sleep until sunlight.
If possible, rise with the sun or turn on bright lights soon after waking. Sunlight helps reset the body’s internal “biological clock” each day.
Create a comfortable environment.
Maintain a comfortable room temperature in the bedroom. Extreme temperatures (too warm or too cold) may make falling asleep or staying asleep difficult. Rid your bedroom of any bright lights and reserve the bed for resting (not other activities like watching television or using the computer).
Fatima Bernard is an internal medicine physician at Stansbury Springs Health Center in Stansbury Park. The center’s phone number is 843-3647.