Consider the following scenarios.
You suddenly slump over your desk at work. Your boss suspects you are having a heart attack and springs into action to make sure you receive the care you need. While you’re recovering in the hospital, he reassures you that you’ll receive all of the benefits to which you’re entitled, and your job will be waiting for you whenever you’re able to return to work.
You suddenly slump over your desk at work. Your boss is initially alarmed until he realizes that you have fallen asleep. Upset that you are sleeping on the job, he fires you on the spot because there is no place in the company for lazy, unproductive people.
It turns out that the subject of each scenario has a bona fide medical condition: one a heart attack; the other, a sleep disorder. Both conditions have some controllable risk factors, both respond to treatment in many cases, and both, if left untreated, can be life-threatening. Sleep disorders, however, are misunderstood.
In my experience, I have encountered patients who have left their employment, either voluntarily or involuntarily, because of a sleep disorder that hampered their job performance. I have also encountered many patients who remained on the job, even excelling in some cases, despite the challenges posed by a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders can cause insomnia, excessive sleepiness or unwanted behavior in sleep. No one should allow a sleep-related problem to go undiagnosed and untreated.
In a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, 56 percent of American adults reported experiencing insomnia, defined as the inability to maintain adequate sleep, a few nights a week. Insomnia is a symptom, not a diagnosis, caused by any number of underlying causes, including stress. Sleeping pills can be helpful for some people until the root of the problem is identified and eliminated.
So, what should you do if a good night’s sleep eludes you on a regular basis? First, try practicing good sleep hygiene, including:
- Reserving sleep for the bedroom.
- Keeping the bedroom for sleeping and intimacy only.
- Making the bedroom dark, quiet and cool.
- Eliminating all caffeine.
- Maintaining a regular sleep schedule, especially the wake-up time.
- Trying to get eight continuous hours of sleep each night.
- Engaging in some physical activity, even light stretching, daily.
- Drinking alcohol in moderation and earlier in the evening, if at all, because it can disrupt sleep.
If you try these for a month and still don’t sleep well, it’s time to consult your physician about a possible referral to a sleep specialist. Obstructive sleep apnea is a very common sleep problem, usually characterized by snoring and repeated episodes of interrupted breathing while sleeping (even if your bed partner has not seen you stop breathing). Untreated sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. If you snore and either feel sleepy most days or have hypertension (high blood pressure), see your physician about possible obstructive sleep apnea.
The most effective treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This consists of a mask worn over the nose that delivers pressurized air to keep the airway open and allow continuous breathing. Weight loss can also be helpful for snoring and sleep apnea, but other treatments should be used while weight loss is pursued.
Another problem that can interfere with sleep is restless legs syndrome. Affecting 10 percent of the population, this condition is characterized by an urge to move the legs that comes on at rest in the evening and is relieved, at least temporarily, by movement. Caffeine and certain medications, including antidepressants and decongestants, can contribute to this problem. Some medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease (which is not related to RLS) are effective.
Sleep affects many facets of our lives, and it’s important to know that sleep disorders are very diagnosable and treatable. The bottom line: It’s just not worth sleeping poorly. Get help so you can start getting your z’s. IBI