Do you often find yourself lying in bed doing everything but sleeping? Is the digital glow of the alarm clock mocking you as you try to get the rest you need to be productive? When these bouts of sleeplessness become severe enough that they result in a disruption of your daytime activities, you may be suffering from insomnia. If so, then you are not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one-third of Americans suffer from insufficient sleep or some kind of sleep disorder.
Get the Test
If you're so tired that you're snapping at your family members and dozing at your desk, you may want to consider seeking medical help to get to the root of the problem. Select your doctor based on what you know about your sleep issues—do you snore? An ear, nose, and throat specialist might be your best bet, since you may be having trouble with the physical mechanics of your sleep. "One major sleep issue, obstructive sleep apnea, is treated by ENT doctors as it involves the tongue, soft palette and nasal airway," explains Dr. Jeffrey M. Gallups, a double board certified physician specializing in nasal and sinus disorders. "ENT is the only specialty that can lessen or cure obstructive apnea through surgery. Obstructive apnea can also make reflux worse for those who suffer with it." If you aren't sure what the issue is, a general sleep specialist is a good place to start.
Your doctor will likely begin by having you fill out a questionnaire about your sleep habits and lifestyle. Based on your answers, he or she may order a sleep study. Dr. Parina Shah, the medical director for FusionHealth, says these tests are performed either in a sleep lab or at the patient's home. Your sleep patterns will be monitored, and data on the amount of time spent asleep and awake will be collected. Whether at home or in the lab, a sleep study can accurately determine whether or not someone is suffering from insomnia or sleep apnea.
Once a diagnosis is reached, there are plenty of techniques you can try at home to help alleviate the symptoms. But before you try to make yourself sleepy with a glass of your favorite wine, keep reading. You may be surprised by what saves or sabotages your snooze.
First, turn off the screens. At least an hour before you want to fall asleep, Dr. Shah says to turn off TVs, laptops, and other electronic devices because "the bright light from them fools the brain into thinking that it's daytime, and it makes it harder for you to fall asleep." So, though it may be tough to part with your beloved e-reader or iPad, go old school and snuggle up with a regular book, magazine, or some other unplugged activity so your brain and body can realize it's nighttime.
Another important factor is routine, routine, routine. "Get up at the same time each day seven days a week, avoid daytime naps, and make sure the bedroom is used only for sleep—sexual intercourse excepted," says Dr. Faisal M. Bhutta, a board-certified sleep and lung disorder specialist at North Fulton Hospital. And, though you may be tempted to add an adult beverage to your bedtime routine, don't. Dr. Shah says alcohol can actually make your sleep more fitful, so stick with some warm (decaf) tea.
If all else fails, don't just lie there counting down the hours until your alarm. If you're still awake after 20 or 25 minutes in bed, Dr. Shah recommends getting up and leaving the bedroom for another dark area until you're sleepy again.
Treatments & New Services
Desperate to reach dreamland, you may find yourself trying everything from traditional medicine to alternative remedies such as acupuncture, herbal remedies or meditation. Dr. Bhutta says the evidence suggesting the success for these is sparse, but adds, "One supplement I do often recommend is melatonin. It is available over the counter in the U.S. and can be quite effective for certain types of insomnia."
If your insomnia is due to sleep apnea, though, board-certified sleep disorder specialist Dr. Ron Alvarez says the effective treatments are usually more medically geared than a simple supplement. "CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, works for virtually anyone suffering from sleep apnea," he says. "You have a mask and are hooked up to a machine that forces air through your throat and opens the airway so you don't stop breathing."
Dr. Alvarez explains that one of the newer treatments involves radio frequency tongue abrasion. The technology has been in place for about 10 years but in the past year or two has become the most popular method of treating blockages that cause apnea. "A probe is placed in the patient's mouth and a scar is created on the tongue, shrinking it," Dr. Alvarez says. "We used to have procedures where we removed part of the patient's palate, but this is less invasive."
He notes that at-home treatments for apnea are successful as well, one of which he calls positional therapy. "A lot of times sleep apnea symptoms are worse when you sleep on your back," he says. "By sleeping on your side or your belly, you can keep the airway clearer." If you constantly find yourself waking up on your back, try this trick: Sew a tennis ball into the back of a T-shirt and wear it to bed. That way, you'll be uncomfortable when you roll onto your back and will stay on your side.
In a new poll from 2012, the National Sleep Foundation Bedroom Poll asked Americans about key elements of their bedrooms – the results they found were pretty interesting. When asked what was important for their sleep, about nine out of 10 (93 percent) rated having a comfortable mattress and pillows (91 percent) as important to getting a good night's sleep, followed closely by comfortable sheets (86 percent). It may sound simple, but making sure your mattress is supportive and comfortable can make a big difference. Moreover, use sheets and pillows that are free of allergens that may be affecting your sleep.
At the end of the day, there are several treatments available that can improve your sleep and your overall functioning. You don't need to walk around in a fog because of lack of sleep. If you follow these lifestyle tips, get a diagnosis, and discuss a treatment plan with your doctor, you'll be well rested in no time. Read on for real stories of troubled sleepers.
Dr. Ron Alvarez - Ear, Nose & Throat Institute, www.entinstitute.com
Dr. Faisal M. Bhutta - North Fulton Hospital, www.nfultonhospital.com
Dr. Jeffrey M. Gallups - Ear, Nose & Throat Institute, www.entinstitute.com
Dr. Parina Shah - Fusion Health, www.fusionhealth.com
Sleepless in Atlanta
Locals share their trials and tribulations of tossing and turning
The search for a good night's sleep may seem ever-elusive, but take heart that there are things you can do to help improve your rest. These local Atlantans did! Some have improved, while others are still looking for something that works for them.
Radio personality on Q100
Bert Weiss' issue with poor sleep began about 10 years ago around the time his first son was born. He admits he tried almost everything to help himself catch more zzz's--herbal remedies, juices, soft music, magnets, bio-rhythms, Ambien, and he finally settled on the sleep aid Lunesta.
"Doctors tell me because of my hours that my circadian rhythms are off," he explains. (A circadian rhythm is defined as a roughly 24 hour cycle in the physiological processes of living beings. According to the National Sleep Foundation, our internal circadian biological clocks regulate the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day.) "They suggest I keep the same schedule on the weekend to help." Unfortunately, this remedy doesn't work for him. "I just can't go to bed at 10 p.m. and wake up at 4 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. I have to have some kind of social life."
Weiss has been to three different sleep specialists, and so far the only thing that has worked has been Lunesta.
Weiss goes on to explain "If I'm off the Lunesta then I'm tired, irritable, and can't concentrate." Weiss attempted to get off the drug cold turkey, but he ended up sick. His general practitioner told him to go back on Lunesta so he could get enough rest for his body to heal properly. Although he has not found a permanent remedy yet, he is still hopeful.
Business development consultant
When Gene Stewart noticed he was repeatedly waking up several times during the night and unable to fall back asleep, he tried taking natural supplements like melatonin, but they didn't really work as he had hoped.
"I knew that lack of sleep would eventually lead to other more serious issues, so I had to find out what was causing my sleeplessness," he says. Stewart decided to see Dr. Mark Yanta, who had him complete a sleep study at North Fulton Regional Hospital. The diagnosis was a moderate case of sleep apnea. Stewart was put on a sleep apnea machine that helps his breathing during the night, keeping passageways open for better breathing. "I'm still in a transition mode, but the CPAP machine seems to be making rest better," he says. "It takes a while to get used to wearing a mask at night, but I'm definitely feeling better the next day."
Stewart admits he still gets up at least once per night, but it is now a lot easier to fall back asleep. "I'm not sleeping a full eight hours and probably never will, but the treatments Dr. Yanta prescribed have definitely made a positive impact. I have more energy, which leads to me being more active."
FDA consumer safety officer
Five years ago, Ana Kewes was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. The tumor was estrogen receptive, so the chemo she received not only targeted the cancer cells, but also wiped out the estrogen in her system. The treatment put her body into a chemically induced menopause, which led to night sweats, frequent hot flashes, and depression, all of which resulted in insomnia.
The oncologist she was seeing put her on sleeping and antidepressant medication to try to help. Her doctor also prescribed exercise, but she was too weak to do it very much. On top of that, Kewes was snoring. She went to see Dr. Ronald J. Alvarez, who diagnosed her with sleep apnea. "I figured I'm getting little sleep as it is, and on top of that with sleep apnea, it's no wonder why I was tired all the time," she says.
She was put on a CPAP machine and instructed to use it every night. "It's been a challenge getting used to it, but I'm trying. My goal is to be off the sleeping meds soon," she admits. "I might need to seek further medical care for it, but one step at a time. I still have sleepless nights. But when I can't sleep I get up and read or do a puzzle. Now when I do sleep, at least I don't quit breathing."
10 Reasons for Sleep Deprivation
AGE – As you get older, you spend more time in lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep and REM sleep, making you feel more tired in the morning.
ASTHMA – If you're asthmatic, you may be waking yourself up with nighttime coughs and wheezes.
DEPRESSION – Depression sometimes manifests as difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.
DREAMS – Intense, vivid dreams or nightmares may be stressful enough to wake you up and keep you awake.
GERD – Gastroesophageal reflux disease, more commonly known as acid reflux, might cause you to wake up because of nighttime heartburn.
MENOPAUSE – Because of hormonal changes, as many as 61percent of postmenopausal women report insomnia symptoms.
PREGNANCY – Sleep disruption during pregnancy isn't only due to physical discomfort. Hormonal changes have an inhibitory effect on muscles and may cause snoring and sleep apnea.
RESTLESS LEG SYNDROME – This is characterized by uncomfortable leg sensations that are often relieved by movement, making it difficult to lie still in bed.
WEIGHT – Overweight or obese people are at an increased risk for sleep apnea, which can disrupt sleep several times per night.
WORK – If you work shifts rather than a nine to five desk job, your varied schedule can affect your circadian rhythms, causing daytime sleepiness and difficulty falling asleep when you need to.
Information courtesy of The National Sleep Foundation, www.sleepfoundation.org