An article from the Fall 2012 issue of MyGeorgetownMD.
Good sleep is crucial to our health and well-being.
Our bodies and minds “heal” while sleeping. Immune function, growth, and protein synthesis are all directly related to restful sleep. For many, lifestyle choices and requirements lead to a reduction in quality sleep. For others, sleep problems, including insomnia and sleep disorders, are to blame.
We see the effects of poor quality sleep in the emergency department nearly every day. When people can’t sleep, they are more prone to accidents and injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 motor vehicle accidents each year can be attributed to driver fatigue. Lack of sleep is also associated with depression, seizures and a host of metabolic changes including weight gain.
Sleep medications can help in the short term, but many patients complain about the side effects. Patients often report feeling “groggy” the day after taking a sleep aid. In many cases, sleep can be improved with relatively simple lifestyle changes. Yet, committing to these changes can be very difficult. If the following steps do not help, it may be time to see a sleep specialist:
- Create a sleep sanctuary. The idea is to create a comfortable space dedicated only to sleeping. Keep the television and the computer out of the bedroom. Engage in a quiet activity like recreational reading before bed.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Taking stimulants late in the day can have a negative effect on sleep quality. Smokers are at greater risk of disorders such as sleep apnea (see sidebar below). While alcohol might bring on an initial feeling of drowsiness, it actually interferes with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This is the critical stage of the sleep cycle associated with learning and memory.
- Set a regular bedtime. This one is challenging for shift workers including physicians, military personnel, long-haul truck drivers, and public safety workers. Even if you must be up late, try to reset your internal clock by going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day. Irregular sleep cycles are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and bipolar disorder. Such risks can be reduced by creating a predictable sleep routine.
- Exercise daily. People who are overweight are more likely to have sleep problems. Exercise helps relieve muscle tension and burn excess energy.
When to Call in the Sleep Experts
Sometimes, lifestyle changes are just not enough to get a good night’s rest. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, approximately 18 million Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder that interferes with breathing during sleep, and narcolepsy, a serious disorder of the central nervous system that leads to extreme daytime sleepiness. Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is another common sleep disorder. Patients with RLS experience an uncontrollable urge to move their legs at night to avoid unpleasant sensations below the knee.
Most sleep disorders can be treated effectively, but they require the intervention of a sleep specialist. If you or a loved one is still lying awake night after night — even after trying the above tips— it may be time to schedule an appointment with a sleep disorder specialist.