You may eat right, drink plenty of water, exercise regularly and wear sunscreen every day. But if you‘re not getting enough rest, you‘re not doing everything you can to ensure good health. And national Sleep Awareness Week, March 3 through 9, is the perfect time to give yourself a sleep check-up.
“Good sleep is increasingly recognized as one of the pillars of good health,” says Dr. Stephen Duntley, director of the Washington University Sleep Medicine Center. “Many of our sleep problems are caused by lifestyle issues. Most people require at least eight hours to feel fully refreshed, and our busy lifestyles render adequate sleep time difficult.”
The proliferation of Starbucks offers an obvious clue to many Americans‘ approach to sleep deprivation: caffeine. But Duntley warns that this short-term fix may only add to ongoing sleep problems. Avoiding caffeine and nicotine, using stress-reduction techniques, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, exercising more than five hours before going to bed, and avoiding alcohol and large meals before bed are among the behavioral tactics suggested by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
“Many patients, however, have symptoms that persist despite lifestyle modification, and persistent symptoms should be brought to a physician‘s attention,” Duntley says. “It is particularly important to be aware of and report to your doctor symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome because of the possible pervasive health consequences.”
One of the most common sleep disorders, sleep apnea often is marked by loud snoring that suddenly stops for several seconds and then resumes with a snort or choking sound. Those affected often report excessive daytime sleepiness. Duntley notes that sleep apnea increases the risk of automobile accidents, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and impaired cognitive function. In children, the disorder may cause hyperactivity or learning problems.
Fortunately, sleep apnea is treatable. The most effective treatment is positive airway pressure in which a machine delivers pressurized air through a mask that covers the mouth and may also cover the nose. Other treatments include surgery or a mouthpiece that helps maintain an open airway. Because obesity contributes to sleep apnea, as excess fat and tissue narrow the airway, weight loss may be enough to control the disorder in some patients.
But sleep apnea is only the tip of the iceberg. As much as 10 percent of the American population suffers from chronic insomnia, which is characterized by at least three weeks of difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, says Dr. Joseph Ojile, founder and managing director of Clayton Sleep Institute.
“This chronic disorder needs chronic treatment,” he says. In some cases, undiagnosed psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety, may contribute to insomnia. “Some psychologists have experience helping people with sleep issues,” Ojile adds. However, he says many cases require both behavior modification and prescriptions for successful treatment.
A third common sleep disorder is restless leg syndrome (RLS), which has gained attention recently with the advent (and advertising) of prescription medications to treat the disorder. “We know that RLS has been around for more than a century,” says Dr. Joseph Espiritu, director of the SLUCare Sleep Disorders Center. Patients describe “vague sensations in their legs, such as aching or a creepy-crawly feeling, at night while lying or sitting down.”
Walking, stretching or massaging the legs may offer some relief, but medication is the key to long-term control, Espiritu says. “Pregnant women or people who are anemic may be more likely to experience RLS symptoms,” he adds.
Regardless of the type of sleep disorder, primary care physicians or sleep specialists make a diagnosis based on a detailed patient history and complete physical. They monitor the patient‘s sleep schedule, determine causes for waking and consider habits that may be interfering with sleep. In some cases, a
sleep study is needed to confirm a diagnosis.
The experts agree that there is hope for people with sleep disorders. Identifying and changing behaviors, along with the effective therapies, can provide long-term relief for most sleep problems. Call your doctor if you consistently have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, feel sleepy during the day, or snore loudly. A clear diagnosis and treatment plan will have you resting easy in no time.