Getting enough sleep is critical for thinking clearly and doing well on analytical tests. Sleep also helps fight off infectious diseases, because the nerve cell clusters that control sleep interact closely with the immune system.
A sleep shortage may even take a toll on your metabolism. When sleep is fragmented, several hormones—including those that regulate appetite—are not released normally. This can lead to weight gain and the onset of metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes.
So when should you suspect a sleep disorder? It’s not normal to fall asleep while you’re talking to people or not to be able to watch any television because you will fall asleep. Other indications that it’s time to touch base with your doctor include excessive snoring and breath-holding in sleep, nocturnal seizures and shaking spells, and leg cramps.
If you have symptoms like these, your doctor will probably check for anemia, thyroid disorder or vitamin B12 deficiency and may recommend an overnight stay in a sleep lab. There, sleep specialists will use computers and other state-of-the-art equipment to monitor everything from oxygen saturation in the blood to leg movements during sleep to reach a definitive diagnosis.
If your nighttime problems do turn out to be related to a sleep disorder, here’s what the possibilities are:
Insomnia. Each year nearly half of adults experience insomnia—insufficient, disturbed or non-restorative sleep. To remedy the occasional bout of wakefulness, consider creating a more comfortable sleep environment. Try not to fret; worrying activates pathways in your brain that can make it even harder to fall asleep.
* Narcolepsy. Far less common than insomnia, narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder in which the ability of the central nervous system to regulate sleep is impaired. People with narcolepsy suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness and have intermittent, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the day.
* Sleep apnea. Characterized by loud snoring and gasping for breath, obstructive sleep apnea is a condition of breathing interruptions linked to fat buildup and loss of muscle tone, which leads the windpipe to collapse as muscles relax during sleep. People with sleep apnea jolt themselves awake repeatedly because their body is telling them that they are not getting enough oxygen.
A recent study raised some new red flags: It found that a group of sleep apnea patients tracked over four years had a risk of stroke two to three times greater than those without respiratory abnormalities.
People think about sleep apnea as an annoyance, but they should know that it can increase the risk for stroke, heart attack and high blood pressure, as well as heart failure.
Obesity is a major risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea, and sometimes losing weight can help remedy it.
* Avoid alcohol. Sure, a drink or two may help you to nod off, but it tends to keep you in the lighter stages of sleep.
* Nix the naps. Naps can be part of normal sleep patterns for older people. But if you are having trouble getting to sleep at night, try to nap for only 20 minutes or so. Snooze longer than that, and you may fall into the kind of deep sleep from which it’s hard to awaken.
* Put your worries on paper. If tomorrow’s “To Do” list is nagging at you, jot it down in a notebook kept near your bedside. Then tell yourself that you’ll deal with it tomorrow.
* Move it! In addition to its many other benefits, daily exercise promotes better sleep. But schedule it at least several hours before bedtime because exercise is a stimulant.
* Surrender to sleeplessness (temporarily). If you can’t sleep despite your best efforts, get up and do something else for a while. Don’t watch the clock; try turning it away from the bed.