Eyes wide open " insomnia | VailDaily.com

Eyes wide open " insomnia

Caramie Schnell
Vail, CO, Colorado
Illustration by Dawn Beacon

Brandon Combs calls himself a vampire.

But the 31-year-old Avon resident isn’t sporting pointy teeth and a rivulet of blood leaking from his mouth ” he just mimics their night-owl sleep preferences. Combs can’t sleep and has struggled to enter REM-land since he was 13 years old. Most nights he doesn’t go to sleep until between 2 and 4:30 a.m.

“I lay there and look at the ceiling and start counting the divots. I’m at 957 thus far,” he joked ” kind of.

Combs’ is one of an estimated 70 million Americans affected by sleep problems and disorders, according to the National Institute of Health. Forty million of those people chronically can’t sleep. Insomnia is the most common sleep complaint and affects at least 1/3 of the population.

The longest Combs’ has ever gone without sleeping is about 74 hours, he said.

“God that sucked. I started getting sick around day two. It wasn’t like I was a tweaker, either ” no alcohol, no chemicals ” I was just awake.

“Everthing gets fuzzy and tingly. You kind of lose perspective at that point, and it feels like you’re watching a cartoon,” Combs said.

When Combs’ worked as a security guard, his insomnia served as a bonus for his employer ” he could stay awake easily through the long night shifts. Now he’s a tattoo artist at Eagle-Vail Ink Lounge ” not exactly a 9-to-5 gig, but not a night job, either.

Even when Combs does sleep, which generally is only possible after swallowing 4 to 8 extra-strength Unisom tablets (you’re supposed to take one pill, Combs said) the sleep isn’t exactly restful. He wakes up fairly often and worries ” “about anything ” deaths, stress from work, our upcoming move, relationships in general, stuff from my past. I once lost sleep over something I did in the second grade.”

For nearly four years Combs’ took prescription sleeping pills every night. When he moved from Vegas to Vail he decided to get off the prescription pills and started taking over-the-counter sleep aids instead. Combs has no idea if the switch is better for his body, but as a recovering alcoholic, he said he didn’t like the idea of being addicted to the prescriptions. Now, influenced in part by his girlfriend, Combs’ is trying some natural sleep remedies, including teas and herbal supplements. It’s too early to tell if they’ll work for him, he said.

People aren’t exactly counting sheep anymore to help them sleep. Direct costs ” money spent on treatment, healthcare services, hospital and nursing care ” are estimated at $14 billion annually. Add the indirect costs ” work loss, property damage for accidents and transportation to the doctor ” and the bill is over $40 billion a year, according to the National Sleep Foundation (www.sleepfoundation.org).

“Women, the elderly and people with chronic health conditions are most at risk for insomnia,” said Beth Bidwell, manager of the Sleep Center at Exempla Lutheran medical center in Wheat Ridge. The sleep center is only one of the two accredited centers in the Denver metro area. Though the six doctors at the center see people with all types of sleep disorders, including narcolepsy and insomnia, their focus is diagnosing and treating sleep apnea, defined as a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. With a focus on patient education and community awareness, Bidwell said they travel to recreation centers, women’s groups, senior centers and 9Health Fairs to talk about healthy sleep.

There are some simple changes in your daily routine and habits that can help you sleep, Bidwell said.

“(We recommend) things like going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning, no exercise, caffeine or alcohol within three hours of bedtime,” she said.

Watching television in bed is another no-no.

“The flashing lights get through eyelids and disrupts your sleep. You also might be having subtle arousals purely by volume changes when commercials come on. You might not even know it’s happening except you feel tired in the daytime,” Bidwell said.

A cool, dark and quiet environment is the most condusive to sleep, Bidwell said.

There’s no clear cut test to identify insomnia, Bidwell said. When someone comes in complaining of insomnia, the doctors suggest going back to the basics with the healthy sleep tips.

“Right now we live in a world that never turns off ” we have the 24-hour Internet; people can stay up all night watching TV. There are so many ways to mess with your sleep,” she said.

A sleep diary is often times helpful Bidwell said. In the diary you keep track of things like what you ate and did before bed, what time you went to bed, what time you got up and what, if anything, woke you in the night.

“We sometimes see a pattern that can be corrected,” Bidwell said.

Often times Bidwell said the doctors will refer a patient with chronic insomnia to a therapist. Behaviorial treatments, which teach you new sleep behaviors, have been shown in some studies to be equally or more effective than sleep medications.

Before Tracee Metcalfe, an internal medicine doctor at Colorado Mountain Medical, will write a patient a prescription for sleeping pills, she said she tries to find out why the person can’t sleep ” in part quizzing them about their sleep habits and trying to find out if the insomnia is a result of depression or anxiety, or possibly sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. Some of her patients have problems sleeping at high altitude, she said.

“Only then I’ll try a sleep aid ” they’re just not a good solution because they can be addictive. You shouldn’t use them every night,” Metcalfe said.

Because chronic insomnia has been linked to things like obesity, depression and high blood pressure, Metcalfe said it’s very important to talk about it with your doctor.

Caramie Schnell can be reached at 748-2984 or cschnell@vaildaily.com.

Support Local Journalism