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Whether experienced as a chronic condition or only an occasional bout, sleep disorders affect more than 60 million Americans each year and result in a loss of sleep that impacts both mental and physical health. In fact, medical costs and the additional costs in lost work attributed to sleep disorders add up to over $16 billion each year.
Sleep Disorders Affect 60 Million Americans
By Pamela Boaz
A decrease in restorative sleep makes mental concentration and especially math computation more difficult. Loss of sleep can even be dangerous. Demonstrations conducted in driving simulators show that a lack of sleep can actually be equal to or worse than being intoxicated. According to the Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver drowsiness accounts for 100,000 automobile accidents and 1500 deaths per year.
Insomnia, one of the most common sleep disorders, is caused by a disruption in a person’s Circadian Rhythm. This rhythm refers to the internal clock that controls our sleeping and waking. Insomnia is marked by difficulty in falling asleep or in staying asleep. It may result in feeling tired or sleepy during the day even if you have had the typical 8 hours of sleep recommended for most adults.
Insomnia can last for a single night or can become a chronic problem. This condition may be caused by acute stresses brought on by a tragic loss, a job change, or even a recent marriage. Sleeping in a new setting or on a new mattress can also contribute to insomnia. Additional environmental factors which can induce insomnia include loud noises, bad odors, bright lights, or a snoring partner. A medical condition or even medication itself can contribute to sleepless nights.
It may be surprising to learn that having a night cap to relax before bed will not help you achieve a good night’s sleep. While you may fall into a light sleep, alcohol prevents the most restorative stages of sleep. Tobacco use causes smokers to sleep lightly, and those with heavy addiction to nicotine often wake up after 3-4 hours of sleep because of withdrawal.
A better choice for preventing or curing mild insomnia is through employing good sleep habits, such as having a regular time to go to bed and to wake up. Short-term insomnia can be cured with the help of a doctor who may prescribe sleeping pills. It should be noted that sleep aids generally stop working after a few weeks and that long-term use can ultimately interfere with a good night’s sleep. For more serious cases of insomnia, researchers have found light treatment, which helps re-establish Circadian Rhythms, to be effective.
The complaints that a sleep partner has about your snoring could be an indicator of yet another sleep disorder–sleep apnea. This condition is an interruption in breathing during sleep, and while it affects over 18 million people, it is rarely diagnosed.
During an episode of Obstructive Sleep Apnea, the effort to inhale creates a suction that collapses the windpipe, causing the airflow to be blocked for 10 to 60 seconds while you struggle to get a breath. As the blood oxygen levels fall, the brain wakes you enough to tighten the airway muscles and open the windpipe. This may result in a snort or gasp, and then you go back to snoring. This pattern can repeat hundreds of times during the night, and waking up so often causes you to be sleepy even if you have slept a full night. Continued sleep loss can cause irritability or depression. The deprivation of oxygen associated with sleep apnea may also result in morning headaches, a decline in mental function, high blood pressure, and a loss of interest in sex.
Sleep apnea is also linked to obesity which means that weight loss can be an effective cure for a mild condition. Since the decreased muscle tone of aging is also responsible, simply avoiding sleeping on your back can help.
Obstructions causing sleep apnea can be corrected with Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) devices or even surgery. Determining this condition is done by a Sleep Center Specialist who conducts a test called polysomnography which records brain waves, heartbeat, and breathing during an entire night of sleep.
Sleep apnea is a serious condition, and those with a severe, untreated condition are two to three times more likely to have a car accident. It is recommended that people who have this disorder should not take sedatives or sleeping pills because during an episode they may not wake up enough to breathe.
A hereditary disorder, Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) creates an unpleasant crawling, prickling, and tingling in the legs and feet and results in an urge to move for relief. RLS is becoming the most common sleep disorder among older people; however, symptoms can develop at any age.
In total it affects 12 million people and may be linked to pregnancy, anemia, or diabetes. The constant movement of the legs and feet during the day is typical of RLS, and this symptom may cause insomnia at night. Some drug therapies have proved helpful in relieving RLS symptoms.
Narcolepsy affects 250,000 Americans. Sudden periods of sleep in the middle of being awake are associated with this condition. These “sleep attacks” are thought to be due to the brain’s inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles normally. The attacks can last from several seconds to thirty minutes.
Narcolepsy is usually hereditary, but can also come from brain damage caused by head injury or neurological disease. Drugs such as stimulants or anti-depressants can control the symptoms, and naps taken during the day can diminish the attacks.
There is good news for a good night’s sleep. Practicing positive sleep habits is a healthy choice for everyone and can even eliminate milder sleep disorders. Consider making these tips part of your nighttime routine.
• Have a scheduled time to go to bed and to wake up. Even if holidays and vacations create a temptation to change your schedule, sticking to your body’s rhythm brings more restorative sleep.
• Exercise daily. A regular exercise program also enhances the rhythm of your sleeping and waking routine, especially if you exercise 5-6 hours before bedtime.
• Relax before going to bed by reading, watching television, praying or meditating. Established patterns or signals are an important part of getting ready for sleep, making quiet activities a perfect transition from your busy day.
• Avoid caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol before bedtime. Research shows that consuming any one of these will interfere with your body’s sleep patterns and phases.
• Keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature. Controlling the sleep environment is an important part of getting a good night’s sleep.
• Do not lie in bed awake. The frustration associated with lying in bed awake can actually cause insomnia. A better choice is to get up and return to a relaxing activity.
• Sleep until the sun comes up or use very bright lights in the morning. While few of us can sleep until the sun rises, we can all choose to start our day in a well-lighted space.
Most of us have experienced difficulty sleeping at one time or another, but all of us can practice good sleep habits that will prvoide us the sleep that we need. When the problem becomes chronic, you should visit your doctor or consult with a sleep specialist. . Sleep specialists use technology to monitor you while you sleep in an effort to diagnose the cause or causes for sleep disorders. They observe your sleep patterns while monitoring brain waves, heart rate, rapid eye movements, and more. The good news is, many treatments are available to help restore restful nights.
Pamela Boaz earned her undergraduate degree from the University of North Florida and her Masters in Education from UTC. Twenty-four of her thirty years as an English teacher were spent at Red Bank High School, where she was faculty advisor for the student newspaper and a lead teacher for the Teaching Academy. Currently Pam serves as Professor-in-Residence for UTC, supervising student teachers. Pam works as Assistant Editor for CityScope and HealthScope magazines.

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