Desperately seeking slumber
From the Spring 2007 Issue of Aging Wisely
There are a lot of sleepy people out there. As Americans, we typically get an hour and a half less sleep per night than the seven to nine hours experts recommend.
“Sleep is critical for restoration of the body and brain,” says James Wyatt, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at RUSH University Medical Center. During sleep, the body repairs tissues and the nervous system, and processes everything you’ve learned that day.
“People with sleep disorders say they feel much less able to cope with the next day’s stressors,” says Wyatt. It’s harder for them to cope with problems at work, and tired, cranky people tend to snap at family and friends.
It’s not just the social aspects, though. Lack of sleep can increase your risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and for accidents related to sleep deprivation.
Why can’t I sleep?
As we get older, it may become more difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Medications may interfere with the brain’s ability to fall asleep or stay asleep (e.g., diuretics used to treat high blood pressure may cause frequent bathroom trips).
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (also called COPD) and other respiratory conditions, pain from arthritis, and cardiac conditions like congestive heart failure are some of the medical conditions that can dramatically impair the body’s ability to get quality restorative sleep.
“There’s rarely just one cause,” Wyatt says. “Because so many different medications, environmental factors, medical conditions, psychological problems, and social factors can cause sleep problems we must investigate all of them.”
Self-help techniques in books and on Web sites can work for easy-to-treat insomnia. Self-medication treatments like alcohol or products containing dipenhydramine (Benadryl) may help initially, Wyatt says, but after a couple of days, they become ineffective and can sometimes begin to actually harm sleep.
Talk to your doctor
If you’ve had trouble sleeping for more than two weeks, see your doctor. Wyatt says he would like to see sleep considered another vital sign like heart rate and blood pressure. “We are trying to alert primary care doctors to the importance of asking their patients about sleep at every visit,” Wyatt says.
If your doctor doesn’t ask, by all means, bring it up. Be specific: For example, tell your doctor that your sleep is unrestorative, your snoring is getting out of hand, or you just can’t sleep.
Prescription medications designed specifically to promote sleep are by and large very safe and effective, Wyatt says, even when taken for extended periods of time.
When simple treatments fail, an evaluation at a sleep center may be in order. Wyatt says he’s yet to see a patient he could not help as long as the patient was willing to continue with the lifestyle changes, medications, or medical devices that may have to be maintained for years.
“For the majority of patients,” Wyatt says, “we can actually get them sleeping much better without resorting to medications. There are a lot of behavioral treatments for insomnia that are very effective.”
Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone.
– Anthony Burgess, author
A snoring partner can be a hazard to your health because it often means that you aren’t sleeping either. Moving to another room may help, but sometimes the snoring is so loud it can be heard all over the house.
It’s not so good for the snorer either. Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing stops until an alarm goes off in the brain, and the body rouses itself to start breathing again. The condition is linked to high blood pressure and cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease.
Untreated, it not only makes getting a good night’s sleep nearly impossible for all parties, it is potentially life-threatening for the snorer. If your partner’s snoring is disrupting your sleep, encourage him or her to see a doctor – for everyone’s health.
4 SIMPLE STEPS TO BETTER SLEEP
If you have insomnia, relaxation, not stimulation, should be the focus of your bedtime routine. People who have trouble sleeping should avoid the following activities shortly before bed time:
- Vigorous exercise (within 3 hours)
- Caffeine consumption (within 3-5 hours)
- Television viewing in bed
- Reading in bed
The Sleep Disorders Center at RUSH University Medical Center has developed an interactive conversation about sleep available at www.rush.edu/sleep.
Visit these Web sites for more information on sleep disorders: