Solving the Mysteries of Sleep

By Rickard, Kathleen A. | USA TODAY, July 1997 | Go to article overview
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Solving the Mysteries of Sleep


Rickard, Kathleen A., USA TODAY


Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years, but many individuals would give anything just to sleep peacefully through the night. According to the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research, approximately 40,000,000 Americans have a chronic sleep disorder, and another 20,000,000 experience occasional sleep disturbances.

Steep disorders are estimated to cost the U.S. $15,900,000 per year in direct medical costs. In addition, a host of other conditions are associated with sleep problems, ranging from loss of productivity to higher mortality and accident rates. The International Classification of Sleep Disorders has divided them into four categories by possible cause: intrinsic sleep disorders, parasomnias, circadian rhythm sleep disorders, and extrinsic sleep disorders.

Intrinsic sleep disorders originate or develop within the body. Insomnia is the most common complaint, affecting more than 60,000,000 Americans, 35,000,000 of whom have suffered from the condition for a lone time. It plagues almost everyone at some point, often for the first time as children, too excited to sleep the night before a birthday party or major holiday. Insomnia varies with age and sex, occurring roughly 1.5 times more often in the elderly than in younger adults and affecting approximately 40% of women and 30% of men.

Transient, or short-term, insomnia can arise from a headache, indigestion, a cold, or being away from home. The cause of long-term insomnia is more complex and can be more difficult to determine. Often, insomnia points to a medical condition, such as asthma, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, or ulcers -- or even another sleep disorder -- that must be diagnosed and treated before the insomnia will abate. Tips for combating insomnia include:

* Get in the mood for sleep with meditation, a hot bath, a glass of milk (it contains the amino acid tryptophan, which is associated with sleep), or a cup of herbal tea.

* Establish a sleep pattern by getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends.

* Reserve your bed for sleep, not for chatting on the phone or paying bills.

* Stop napping during the day.

* Cease smoking, Nicotine is a powerful stimulant.

* Watch what you eat and drink. Try to avoid heavy food, alcohol, and caffeine right before bedtime.

* Exercise at some point during the day, but not right before going to bed.

* Try not to take your worries to bed with you. Instead, make a list of problems and possible solutions at the kitchen table.

Sleep apnea is the most common cause of excessive daytime sleepiness diagnosed by sleep centers. The most prevalent form is obstructive sleep apnea. which occurs due to upper airway obstruction and prevents breathing for 10 seconds or longer. Symptoms of sleep apnea include loud snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, and frequent awakenings at night to gasp for air. It typically strikes middle-aged men who are overweight or have thick necks. The most common medical treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is a mask-like device that keeps breathing passages open with air pressure.

Narcolepsy is the second leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness. Although 50,000 Americans have been diagnosed with the disorder, it is estimated that the vast majority of narcoleptics are undiagnosed, probably raising the number to 250,000-375,000. Obtaining a proper diagnosis of the disease is difficult since patients with narcolepsy have been misdiagnosed with diseases ranging from epilepsy to schizophrenia and from depression to hypothyroidism. The average length of time between onset and diagnosis is 15 years, and the mean number of doctors seen is five.

Symptoms of narcolepsy include excessive daytime sleepiness (even dropping off to sleep at any time, whether it be watching TV or driving a car), cataplexy (brief episodes of muscle weakness brought on by strong emotion), sleep paralysis (inability to move occurring at the moment of failing asleep), and hypnagogic hallucinations (dreamlike images that occur at sleep onset).

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Solving the Mysteries of Sleep
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