As writer Arianna Huffington explains in her newest book Sleep Revolution, she was sleep deprived for so long that it had become a way of life–until she fainted at her desk one day in 2007, smashing her cheekbone. She took it as a sign to change the way she was living, and so began a journey of learning how to get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep deprivation is common, and many people suffer with it alone without talking to their doctor. “It’s a huge problem,” says Dr. Peter Fotinakes, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at St. Joseph Hospital. “There are many types of sleep disorders—practically everyone has one.” The two most common: insomnia and sleep apnea.
People who don’t get enough sleep experience a decline in memory, focus, concentration and mood, according to research. And this is a public safety issue—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 16 percent of fatal car crashes each year are caused by driver fatigue.
What are the causes of this widespread problem, and what can be done?
Insomnia means having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. “Everyone experiences insomnia at some point,” says Dr. Fotinakes, “and usually it’s temporary.” The most frequent cause of short-term insomnia is a stressful incident that stimulates your mind and keeps you up, he says. A death in the family, getting laid off, or an upcoming work presentation or school test can all trigger periods of insomnia. “After some time, though, most people will eventually go back to normal sleep pattern,” he says.
Menopausal hot flashes can cause some women to not sleep well, says Dr. Fotinakes. And teenagers with jam-packed schedules, hours of homework and no time to relax also can suffer from sleep problems.
But for people with chronic insomnia, life can be miserable.
In her 2014 book, Yes Please, comedienne Amy Poehler writes about her chronic insomnia: “I love to talk about how little sleep I get. I brag about it, as if it is a true indication of how hard I work,” she writes. “But I truly suffer at night. Bedtime is fraught with fear and disappointment.”
Chronic insomniacs will go to bed and then fixate on the prospect of not sleeping. “These people will lie in bed thinking, ‘What if I can’t fall asleep? What if I’m not getting enough sleep?’” says Dr. Fotinakes. “This can sets off a kind of performance anxiety associated with sleep.” Going for weeks or months without enough sleep (considered on average to be 7 to 8 hours per night) can lead to health and emotional problems, as well as accidents like Huffington’s.
Sleep apnea is another sleep disorder, where the throat muscles are relaxed to a point at which a person’s airway narrows, making breathing difficult. Common symptoms are loud snoring, and not breathing in for short periods during asleep. “Sleep apnea is related to obesity, so as our population gets heavier, we see more cases of sleep apnea,” says Dr. Fotinakes.
If it’s left untreated, sleep apnea can increase a person’s risk for cardiovascular complications such as high blood pressure and stroke. Losing weight, and stopping smoking can alleviate sleep apnea. A common treatment is to use a machine that pumps oxygen into nasal passages called CPAP — continuous positive airway pressure — keeping the airway open during sleep. “This is a non invasive way to reduce risk factors,” says Dr. Fotinakes.
Because sleep is so critical to good health and well being, it’s worth taking the following steps from The National Sleep Foundation and other experts to make it possible.
Do’s and don’ts for a good night’s sleep
Do keep the bedroom dark, quiet and a comfortable temperature.
Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol, or take nicotine products before bedtime.
Do turn off lights, computers, TV and cell phones.
Don’t take daytime naps.
Do get daily exercise, but not right before bed.
Don’t eat a heavy meal within a few hours of bedtime.
Do learn relaxation techniques.
Don’t sleep in on weekends; stick to a regular sleep schedule.
Do create a relaxing bedtime routine.