Sleepless Nights; Relieving Insomnia a Restless Pursuit

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Sleepless Nights; Relieving Insomnia a Restless Pursuit


Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Who hasn't lost sleep over the past few weeks watching wall-to-wall coverage of the war with Iraq, what some back in 1991 called the "CNN syndrome?"

Insomnia, a prolonged lack of sleep that can affect mental sharpness and overall physical health, may be the result of too many ominous headlines. While yawning through a big meeting might be an embarrassing side effect of insomnia, more worrisome repercussions could include missing key time from work or even nodding off behind the wheel.

Insomnia refers to difficulty falling asleep, waking up repeatedly during the sleep cycle and feeling exhausted come morning. Conditions such as back pain, depression and arthritis can trigger insomnia.

Less extreme cases may be conquered by listening to soothing music or drinking a glass of warm milk, which contains the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan, before calling it a night. More serious bouts of insomnia can be treated with brief rounds of sedatives to restore order to the sleep cycle. Or, if breathing during sleep is interrupted, a condition called sleep apnea, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which prevents such interruptions, can be used by the patient to get a sound night's sleep.

A survey conducted by the District-based National Sleep Foundation reported April 8 that concerns over war, terrorism and a rickety economy have caused a steep increase in stress and sleeplessness. The group suggests turning off the news an hour before going to bed to have a better chance for a restful sleep. It also recommends avoiding eating or drinking before bedtime and making the bedroom quiet, dark and comfortable.

Insomnia isn't limited to our tumultuous times, however. Experts say up to 30 million people, on average, suffer from a significant lack of sleep. That means getting much less sleep than needed over an extended period, which leaves someone physically drained during waking hours.

Primary insomnia, according to the National Institutes for Health, refers to at least one month's worth of sleep complications not stemming from any specific physical or mental cause, but rather because of stress or poor sleep habits.

Anne E. O'Donnell, interim chief of Georgetown University Medical Center's Division of Pulmonary Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, says we shouldn't be surprised if the war in Iraq caused sleepless nights nationwide.

"I don't know anyone who is tracking this, though it is assumed that when people find themselves in stressful situations, war or otherwise, they have difficulty sleeping," Dr. O'Donnell says.

Stress is a common cause of insomnia, but so, too, are chronic pain, addiction and stimulants such as coffee or drugs. Neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease also can bring about restlessness. This cocktail of causes makes insomnia tricky to treat.

The first step is to analyze what doctors call the patient's "sleep hygiene," or overall approach to the sleep process.

"A lot of the times it's a behavior," Dr. O'Donnell says of insomnia. "People fall into bad patterns. Insomnia patients should not eat, drink or work out close to bedtime. And they should keep their 'wind down' time fairly consistent from night to night to help them sleep. Drinking beverages with caffeine also can complicate sleep patterns."

Dr. Marc Schlosberg, co-director of the Washington Hospital Center's sleep center, says our anxious times likely affect how well we sleep.

"I would think there would almost have to be [an effect], from my own experience. I've seen a lot of it after September 11," says Dr. Schlosberg, who treated a Pentagon employee who battled insomnia for more than a year in the wake of those attacks.

The first thing Dr. Schlosberg does when evaluating a patient complaining of insomnia-type symptoms is to look for psychological or physical conditions that might be behind the restlessness. …

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