Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University
For some, sleep is a luxurious break from the hassles of the day; for others it is literally a nightmare. The fact that we spend nearly one-third of our lives in bed doesn’t necessarily mean that we sleep well or even at all.
At least 40 million Americans suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders and an additional 20 million experience occasional sleeping problems, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). These disorders and the resulting sleep deprivation interfere with work, driving, interpersonal relationships and social activities. They also account for an estimated $16 billion in medical costs each year, and millions more in lost productivity.
What happens during sleep?
A lot more than you probably realize. Sleep causes the body to slow down; breathing, heart rate, and body temperature all decrease. This period of rest also gives the body a chance to repair itself by restoring energy reserves, replacing cells that are damaged, and giving certain functions a much needed break.
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The amount of sleep each person needs depends on many factors, including age. The following are average amounts:
- Infants require about 16 hours a day
- Teenagers need about 9 hours
- Most adults require 7 to 8 hours a night although some people may need as few as 5 hours or as many as 10 hours of sleep each day
There are, of course, an endless number of reasons why we might not get the amount of sleep we need on any given night. For the majority of people, these reasons are circumstantial and pass within a short period of time. But those who suffer from sleep disorders may go weeks, months or even years without good rest.
Doctors have identified more than 70 sleep disorders, most of which can be managed effectively once they are correctly diagnosed. The most common sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy and sleepwalking.
Insomnia is simply the inability to sleep, and almost everyone suffers an occasionally bout. But it is estimated by NINDS that about 40 percent of women and 30 percent of men have frequent insomnia. This problem typically stems from stress, jet lag, working the third shift or diet. Use of caffeinated drinks such as coffee and drugs such as diet pills and decongestants stimulate parts of the brain and can also cause insomnia.
For short-term insomnia, doctors may prescribe sleeping pills. Most sleeping pills stop working after several weeks of nightly use, however, and long-term use can actually interfere with good sleep. Mild insomnia often can be prevented or cured by practicing good sleep habits. For more serious cases of insomnia, researchers are experimenting with light therapy and other ways to alter the internal body clock to make it more regulated to sleep.
Sleep apnea, also called obstructive sleep apnea, is a disorder of interrupted breathing during sleep. As a person with apnea sleeps, their windpipe repeatedly collapses closing off the airway. The familiar gasping or snorting associated with apnea occurs because the person is starved for air. The brain senses the lack of oxygen and wakes the person up and which begins the breathing again. This can literally happen hundreds of times in one night and typically leaves the person exhausted the next day.
Those with apnea should be evaluated at a specialized sleep center where they can have their brain waves, heartbeat and breathing monitored while they sleep. Mild sleep apnea frequently can be overcome through weight loss or by preventing the person from sleeping on his or her back. Other people may need special devices or surgery to correct the obstruction. People with sleep apnea should never take sedatives or sleeping pills, which can prevent them from awakening enough to breathe.
Restless Legs Syndrome
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a disorder that causes unpleasant tingling sensations in the legs and feet and an urge to move them for relief. This sleep disorder affects 12 million people and is especially common among older people. In some cases, it may be linked to other conditions such as anemia, pregnancy, or diabetes. RLS can usually be relieved by drugs that help eliminate the symptoms.
People with narcolepsy have frequent “sleep attacks” at various times of the day, even if they have had a normal amount of night-time sleep. These attacks last from several seconds to more than 30 minutes. Once narcolepsy is diagnosed, any number of drugs can help control the symptoms and prevent the embarrassing and dangerous effects of falling asleep at improper times. Naps at certain times of the day also may reduce the excessive daytime sleepiness.
Sleepwalking is more common in children than in adolescents and adults, and boys are more likely to sleepwalk than girls. If a child begins to sleepwalk by the age of 9, it often lasts into adulthood. For most, episodes of sleepwalking occur infrequently and are not harmful. In severe cases, the episodes occur almost nightly and are associated with physical danger. Aside from taking normal precautions such as keeping windows and doors locked to prevent injury, anti-anxiety drugs seem to help reduce the episodes in most cases.
See a doctor if your or your child’s sleeping problem continues. If you have trouble falling asleep night after night, or if you always feel tired the next day, then you may have a sleep disorder and should see a physician. Your primary care physician may be able to help you; if not, you can probably find a sleep specialist at a major hospital near you. Most sleep disorders can be treated effectively, so you can finally get that good night’s sleep you need.
Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep
- Set a schedule. Go to bed at a set time each night and get up at the same time each morning.
- Exercise. Try to exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day. But don’t exercise at least two hours before bed. It may interfere with sleep.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Avoid caffeinated products such as coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, non-herbal teas, diet drugs, and some pain relievers, which act as stimulants. Nicotine and alcohol usage cause lighter sleep.
- Relax before bed. A warm bath, reading, or another relaxing routine right before bed can make it easier to fall sleep.
- Sleep until sunlight. If possible, wake up with the sun, or use very bright lights in the morning. Sunlight helps the body’s internal biological clock reset itself each day.
- Don’t lie in bed awake. If you can’t get to sleep, don’t just lie in bed. Do something else, like reading, watching television, or listening to music, until you feel tired.
- Control your room temperature. Maintain a comfortable temperature in the bedroom.
- See a doctor if your sleeping problem continues. Your primary care physician may be able to help you; if not, you can probably find a sleep specialist at a major hospital near you.
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