As writer Arianna Huffington explains in her book Sleep Revolution, she
was sleep deprived for so long that it had become a way of life–until
she fainted at her desk one day in 2007, smashing her cheekbone. She took
it as a sign to change the way she was living, and so began a journey
of learning how to get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep deprivation is common, and many people suffer with it alone without
talking to their doctor. “It’s a huge problem,” says
Dr. Peter Fotinakes, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at
St. Joseph Hospital, Orange. “There are many types of sleep disorders—practically everyone
has one.” The two most common: insomnia and sleep apnea.
People who don’t get enough sleep experience a decline in memory,
focus, concentration and mood, according to research. And this is a public
safety issue—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
estimates that more than 16 percent of fatal car crashes each year are
caused by driver fatigue.
What are the causes of this widespread problem, and what can be done?
Insomnia means having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. “Everyone
experiences insomnia at some point,” says Dr. Fotinakes, “and
usually it’s temporary.” The most frequent cause of short-term
insomnia is a stressful incident that stimulates your mind and keeps you
up, he says. A death in the family, getting laid off, or an upcoming work
presentation or school test can all trigger periods of insomnia. “After
some time, though, most people will eventually go back to normal sleep
pattern,” he says.
Menopausal hot flashes can cause some women to not sleep well, says Dr.
Fotinakes. And teenagers with jam-packed schedules, hours of homework
and no time to relax also can suffer from sleep problems.
But for people with chronic insomnia, life can be miserable.
In her 2014 book, Yes Please, comedienne Amy Poehler writes about her chronic
insomnia: “I love to talk about how little sleep I get. I brag about
it, as if it is a true indication of how hard I work,” she writes.
“But I truly suffer at night. Bedtime is fraught with fear and disappointment.”
Chronic insomniacs will go to bed and then fixate on the prospect of not
sleeping. “These people will lie in bed thinking, ‘What if
I can’t fall asleep? What if I’m not getting enough sleep?’”
says Dr. Fotinakes. “This can sets off a kind of performance anxiety
associated with sleep.” Going for weeks or months without enough
sleep (considered on average to be 7 to 8 hours per night) can lead to
health and emotional problems, as well as accidents like Huffington’s.
Sleep apnea is another sleep disorder, where the throat muscles are relaxed
to a point at which a person’s airway narrows, making breathing
difficult. Common symptoms are loud snoring, and not breathing in for
short periods during asleep. “Sleep apnea is related to obesity,
so as our population gets heavier, we see more cases of sleep apnea,”
says Dr. Fotinakes.
If it’s left untreated, sleep apnea can increase a person’s
risk for cardiovascular complications such as high blood pressure and
stroke. Losing weight, and stopping smoking can alleviate sleep apnea.
A common treatment is to use a machine that pumps oxygen into nasal passages
called CPAP — continuous positive airway pressure — keeping
the airway open during sleep. “This is a non invasive way to reduce
risk factors,” says Dr. Fotinakes.
Because sleep is so critical to good health and well being, it’s
worth taking the following steps from The National Sleep Foundation and
other experts to make it possible.
Do’s and don’ts for a good night’s sleep
Do keep the bedroom dark, quiet and a comfortable temperature.
Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol, or take nicotine products before bedtime.
Do turn off lights, computers, TV and cell phones.
Don’t take daytime naps.
Do get daily exercise, but not right before bed.
Don’t eat a heavy meal within a few hours of bedtime.
Do learn relaxation techniques.
Don’t sleep in on weekends; stick to a regular sleep schedule.
Do create a relaxing bedtime routine.
(This story originally appeared in OC Catholic, November, 2016.)