Sick? Or Tired? One Battle with Sleep Deprivation

I aspirated crumbs. It was a significant event—meaning I know that is what happened. I had food in my mouth, was talking, inhaled and down it went—the wrong way. I could feel it.

After waiting too long, I saw a doctor who suspected pneumonia and sent me for a chest x-ray. The x-ray, however, was clear. After some extensive dialogue and examination the doctor diagnosed me as “sleep deprived.” I was dumbfounded. How dare he say, “Go to bed and call me in the morning?” Nonetheless, after two weeks of following his orders (not using an alarm clock and getting eight to nine hours of sleep each night), I felt back to my old self. The scientific explanation of what happened to those crumbs isn’t pertinent to what I want to share with you here. What is pertinent is the diagnosis and prescription.

Roughly, 70 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation. They also likely suffer in their health, relationships and job performance and have no idea why. Sleep deficiency suppresses the immune system, decreases productivity and can lead to a host of health issues. If you suffer from chronic fatigue, depression, hypertension or memory loss, perhaps you also have some form of sleep disorder.

“Insomnia is our nation’s silent health crisis,” say James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D. in their book Prescription for Natural Cures. Stress and anxiety are the most common causes. However, other physiological problems can play a role. Sleep apnea, gastric reflux, restless leg syndrome, any pain and hormonal imbalances such as women experience at menopause, can all rob a person of a good night’s sleep. When this happens night after night, a sleep deficit results.

Poor lifestyle choices also can contribute to sleep deprivation. Caffeine, tobacco and alcohol disrupt healthy sleep cycles. Shift work, irregular sleep times or studying all night can do the same. According to Dr. Nancy Fodvary-Schaefer, Director of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation Sleep Medicine Program, “Sleep deprivation has evolved into an epidemic….”

Thankfully, I didn’t have any of these excuses. I just didn’t have the time to go to bed! I’m a very busy person—aren’t we all? Managing a part-time business, home-educating our children, and overseeing all the homestead chores like milking, gardening, and animal care consumes all my time. Now you can understand my indignation when the doctor ordered that I increase my four to five hours of sleep by three to four more. Could you do without three or four hours in your day? If anything, I was trying to devise ways to add hours to my day, not subtract them. But I was physically ill. To ignore the doctor’s prescription could have dire consequences.

So, how do you know if this applies to you? The easiest way to measure your sleep debt is to measure your daytime sleepiness according to the Epworth Sleepiness. You can take that short test here.  If your score indicates a moderate sleep debt or worse, the following steps to better sleep hygiene may be for you.

  1. Use the bed only for sleeping and sex. No watching television, doing paperwork, eating or other activities.
  2. Keep a regular bedtime and wake time, even on the weekends. Staying up late and sleeping in on the weekends only sets you up for a tired workweek.
  3. Get the right amount of sleep for you. Most adults need about eight hours, although some feel rested after six and some require nine. After figuring out your ideal, keep it consistent. If, after going to bed, you cannot fall asleep, leave the bedroom and do something boring until you are tired enough to go back to bed.
  4. Avoid naps. Unless you work shift work and need to grab sleep whenever you can, try to get your eight hours consecutively. Napping only disrupts the sleep cycle and hinders a good night’s sleep.
  5. Avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine at least four hours before bed. Although the most common drug used of Americans to induce sleep, alcohol only disrupts the cycles of sleep during the night.
  6. Take your exercise in the late afternoon. The body temperature falls about five to six hours after exercise thereby inducing sleep. Exercise also leads to better stages three and four deep sleep. Avoid exercise, however, within four hours of bedtime, as it will disrupt your sleep.
  7. Establish a relaxing bedtime ritual. A warm bath, peaceful music, deep breathing exercises, prayer, or reading are good choices of pre-bedtime activities. Watching television is not.
  8. Keep the bedroom as quiet and dark as possible. Use a “white” noise device if needed.
  9. Eat meals on a regular schedule. Light suppers five hours before bed are best. Do not go to bed hungry but avoid heavy bedtime snacks. Digestion increases body temperature and interrupts the body cooling required for sleep induction.
  10. Avoid habitual use of sleep medication. Sleep medications, whether prescribed or over the counter, are for temporary use. It is better to retrain your body using the methods described. If a sleep aid is required, try a natural or herbal preparation.

Photo by orangeacid


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