This past week, the dangers of sleep disorders was brought home to me when a friend was killed when he fell asleep while riding his motorcycle. As his wife noted, I know that he had had only about 3-4 hours of sleep the 2 nights before, as he struggled with insomnia.... People in a car behind him saw him repeatedly shake his head for some distance before the crash, as if to try to stay awake.
This could have been my own fate last September. We were returning home from Paris and I had been up for over 24 hours. I didn’t think it was such a good idea to drive home (almost three hours) from the airport at 11:30 at night, but my husband assured me we would be fine. Less than two miles from home, I fell asleep behind the wheel. I learned a very important lesson-don’t drive when you are dealing with jet lag and/or sleep deprivation, regardless of what anyone tells you.
Among the many things my friend Alan was known for was his ability to teach. So with his spirit in mind, sadly here’s a last lesson from him, so please pay attention.
More than 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders. Many people with chronic conditions, because of the diagnosis itself or medication, have sleep problems. Age can be a factor, as well as menopause, being pregnant, worry, stress, even working night shifts and/or having a spouse/partner with sleep problems.
While there are many cartoons and jokes made about people with sleeping issues, this is no laughing matter as good restorative sleep is essential to health and well being. Yes, most of us will have the occasional sleepless night because of stress, hot weather, feeling sick etc. Yet, too many nights of not sleeping can lead to all sorts of problems.
As was the case with my friend, many people struggle with sleep for so long, that being sleep deprived becomes the norm for them.
America seems to pride itself on a lack of need for sleep and the idea of a nap, going to bed early, getting the required amount of sleep we need and so forth is often seen as a sign of weakness. Not only have individuals normalized their own sleep deprivation issues, so has our culture.
• Types of sleep Disorders: There are four primary disorders:
- Insomnia: The most common type of sleep disorder, it is characterized by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or returning to sleep after being awaken; waking up frequently; sleep is not refreshing; and sleepiness and low energy are common during the day. Insomnia is often a symptom of something wrong-excess stress, anxiety, depression, poor diet, lack of exercise, medications being taken or an underlying health problem. Learn more at Can’t sleep? Understanding Insomniaand its symptoms.
- Sleep Apnea: Due to the blockage of the upper airways, breathing temporarily stops during sleep leading to a number of awakenings each hour. Symptoms include loud, chronic snoring; frequent pauses in breathing during sleep; gasping, snorting or choking during sleep; not feeling rested no matter how much you sleep at night or how many naps you take; or waking with shortness of breath, chest pains, headaches, nasal congestion or dry throat. Learn more about Sleep Apnea it’s symptoms, causes, cures and treatment options.
- Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS): Strong urge to move legs or arms, which is worse at night or after resting. These symptoms are relieved when you move, stretch or massage your legs. Learn more about the symptoms, treatment and self help for RLS.
- Narcolepsy: Excessive, uncontrollable daytime sleepiness. Learn more about Narcolepsy itssymptoms and treatment.
Other types of sleep problems include jet lag, shift work, a partner that has sleep problems or having a delayed sleep phase. The latter includes those people who refer to themselves as “night owls”-they prefer to go to bed in the wee hours of the morning and sleep until noon. That’s great if your schedule allows you to do that, but often that creates problems for those with a 9-5 job.
• Do you, or someone you sleep with, have a sleeping problem? Just by reading the section above, you’ll have a good idea if some of these issues are relevant to you. There is an easy assessment tool provided by St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta that can provide you with more information.
• What should I do? If you are experiencing sleep issues, do not operate machinery, drive or do other tasks that could cause problems for yourself or others should you suddenly fall asleep. Check out Sleep Disorders and SleepingProblems for tips on how to keep a sleep diary and ways to improve your sleep patterns. Make an appointment with your medical provider if:
- Your main sleep problem is daytime sleepiness and self-help hasn’t improved your
- You or your bed partner gasps, chokes, or stops breathing during sleep.
- You sometimes fall asleep at inappropriate times, such as while talking, walking, or eating.
• Treatments: There are a variety of ways to improve sleep, such as keeping a regular sleep schedule and making sure you stick to it; creating a bedroom that is conducive to sleep; and helping to prepare your self for a good night’s rest, by doing things like turning off electronic devices, not eating for two hours before retiring, avoiding caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime and avoiding nicotine. For some people these strategies are not sufficient as there may be an underlying medical condition. Check out Not Sleeping Well?There May be a Medical Cause
Some Final Thoughts:
Naps-There is no shame in a nap. It turns out they are very healthy for most people. They can improve your mood, increase creativity and get you through the day in a lot more healthy way. In fact, research shows that nappers tend to have less heart disease and live longer than those who don’t.
Regardless of how much you sleep at night, we are naturally sleepy in the early afternoon. This is why some countries have Siestas, and today leading corporations are building spots where employees can actually take a nap. Learn more about napping http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/napping
Don’t Drive Sleepy! Here are the top 10 things to do to avoid falling asleep at the wheel, from the AAA Foundation and the University of Iowa:
-Stop driving if you feel sleepy. Stop and drink a caffeinated beverage.
-Since it takes about 30 minutes for caffeine to enter the bloodstream and take effect, use that time to take a nap.
-Get plenty of sleep the night before taking a long trip — at least six hours, though more is better.
-Don't plan to work all day and then drive all night.
- Drive at times when you are normally awake, and stay overnight in a hotel or motel rather than driving straight through.
-Avoid driving at so-called sleepy times of day. Take a midafternoon break for a short nap and find a place to sleep between midnight and dawn. If you can't nap, at least stop your drive and rest for awhile.
- Avoid carbohydrate-laden foods that can make you sleepy, in favor of protein-laden foods.
-Avoid allergy and cold or flu medications containing Diphenhydramine, such as Benadryl, which can contribute to drowsiness. And don't take prescribed sleep aids, such as Ambien, until you are finished driving for the day.
- On long trips, keep an awake passenger in the front seat. Increasing the volume on the car stereo is not a substitute for somebody you can talk to.
- Take a break every two hours or every 100-120 miles, even if you don't need a pit stop or gas. Get out of the car, take some deep breaths and do some stretching exercises, especially neck and shoulders, to relieve cramping and stress. And try to set a limit of 300-400 miles of driving per day.