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Sleepless in a serious sort of way

Restless nights leave us at risk for disease

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, more than 100 million Americans regularly fail to get a good night’s sleep. Some 84 different disorders related to sleeping or waking are ransoming our rest, leaving us at risk for various diseases or, at best, a diminished quality of life.

Some 12 million Americans are known to suffer from sleep apnea, a breathing disorder that causes loud snoring and often halts breathing during sleep, resulting in a true awakening or at least some level of sleep disturbance anywhere from once to hundreds of times a night. An estimated 10 million other sufferers remain undiagnosed.

“The most common sleep disorders are insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome,” says Dr. Shirley Dickinson, a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine. “Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep, while narcolepsy is the inability to stay awake. Restless legs syndrome causes a creepy-crawly sensation that feels like bugs moving just underneath the skin. This becomes a sleep disorder since it results in the need to get up out of bed, typically in the beginning of the night when trying to fall asleep, to relieve the uncomfortable sensations in the legs. As a result, sleep onset can be delayed by an hour or more depending on the severity of the symptoms.”

Usually the result of sitting still for long periods of time, such as at a desk or on an airplane, restless legs syndrome most often occurs toward the end of the day. In the more serious cases, though, it  begins to creep earlier and earlier into waking hours, becoming quite debilitating.

“In the past, a lot of physicians didn’t understand what it was,” says Dickinson. “Now we have treatment to eliminate restless legs symptoms, which usually requires taking a medication within an hour of going to bed.”

Sleep apnea, on the other hand, is treated with the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (C-PAP) device, which involves fitting a small mask over the nose or soft silicone plugs into the nostrils. The air pressure serves to support the airway, which keeps breathing ongoing and consistent throughout a night of restful sleep.

“Sixty percent of the general public will at some point in their lives complain of some kind of insomnia,” Dickinson says.  Insomnia is often the result of lifestyle behaviors, mental or emotional disorders, underlying medical disorders, medications, or the result of other sleep disorders masking as insomnia.