Sleep-deprived Eagle County? Join the club
VAIL CO, Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY – You turn off the lights, get into bed, put your head on the pillow – and just lay there. You stare at the ceiling. You toss and turn. You check the clock.
But for whatever reason, you just can’t sleep.
It’s not an uncommon experience for many people. In fact, many suffer from insomnia, which is defined as difficulty falling asleep, staying a sleep or getting quality sleep, and don’t function well during the day as a result. According to one clinical study of primary care patients, 50 percent reported experiencing occasional insomnia, and 19 percent said they had chronic insomnia.
Edwards-based family physician Steven Yarberry said that insomnia is a very common complaint among his patients, but most don’t consider the problem worthy of a doctor’s visit.
“It’s such a common thing that people don’t come in with it as a major complaint,” Yarberry said. “They’ll come in for other things, and at the end of the appointment, they’ll say, ‘By the way, could you give me some Ambien?’ A lot of people just accept the fact that they can’t sleep and never seek medical help.”
But there is help, he said, and quality of sleep can be improved, sometimes with very simple treatments.
The key to treating insomnia is pinpointing the cause, which can range from psychological causes like grief and stress to physical problems like thyroid disease or sleep apnea.
Eagle-Vail resident Shane Musgrove began experiencing insomnia when he was 10. The problem became more acute during college and has been present into his late 20s. For him, he said the cause is undoubtedly anxiety. The insomnia is especially bad when he’s felt pressured in school or worried about the future, he said.
“For me, there’s an absolute link between anxiety and sleep. And it’s a cycle. The more I didn’t sleep the more anxious I got, and the more anxious I got, the more I didn’t sleep,” he said.
He remembers times in the last couple years, while he was taking university classes and studying for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), when he would go three full days without sleep, studying all night, and his mind racing whenever he tried to get in bed.
William Jones, who asked that his name be changed for this story, said he can’t pinpoint any kind of anxiety, bad sleeping habits or medical conditions that cause his insomnia – he’s simply never been able to sleep, and until he began taking sleeping medications, he had always accepted the problem as a part of his life.
He used to study through the night in school, and for a while, worked the “third shift” at a hospital from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., where incidentally, he met many other insomnia sufferers.
Although he was able to stay up longer than the average person, he said he suffered the effects of sleep deprivation.
“Your short-term memory is nonexistent, so you’re forgetful,” he said. “You’re prone to fall asleep or not pay attention, especially when you’re driving. You just don’t function the same way, and during the day, you’re irritable and always exhausted.”
Musgrove described feeling “zoned out,” losing track of what day it was, and feeling emotional and irritable after his all-nighters. Eventually he’d crash and sleep through most of the day, then start the cycle again.
“The health aspects of not sleeping are so detrimental,” he said. “You lose your appetite. It’s bad for your health and your relationships. It wrecks your body physically and mentally.”
Sleep deprivation takes an emotional and psychological toll as well, as anyone who has spent the day cranky after a bad night of sleep can attest to.
Musgrove said his insomnia made him irrational, sometimes speak aggressively and even caused depression.
His wife, Jamie Musgrove, said it was hard to see her husband struggle with chronic sleep deprivation. They constantly had to change plans, or her husband would miss out on activities because he had stayed up all night and then slept all day.
“I tried to be supportive, but I think the most supportive thing I could do was just listening to him and trying not to take things that he said out of emotion to heart,” she said.
According to Yarberry, treatment can start with simple bedtime habits, also known as “good sleep hygiene.” That includes sleeping at a regular time, shutting off lights, not doing work in your room or in your bed and taking a warm bath to relax before bedtime.
Beyond that, some patients benefit from talking to a counselor about what’s keeping them awake, treating an underlying medical problem, and in serious cases, taking sleep medications.
While there is discussion about whether it’s healthy to regularly take sleep medications and whether they are addictive, some said they’re willing to take the drugs if it means some shut eye.
Jones began taking Ambien, one of the most well-known sleep drugs, almost 10 years ago. He said he can’t remember ever getting a full night of sleep until he began taking the medication. Now in his early 40s, he said the benefits far outweigh any concern he has about regularly taking a medication.
“Before I started taking it, I didn’t sleep, so until they come out with a reason that I shouldn’t take it, like it will cause some sort of horrible mutation, I want to sleep,” he said.
Ambien is in a class of drugs also known to cause delirium, sleep-walking and more in the people who take it. Some people perform all sorts of activities while not fully awake. Jones said he would wake up to find candy, ice cream and even steaks gone from the fridge, and his wife would tell him he had gotten up in the middle of the night and eaten it. What finally caused him to switch to a different type of Ambien was an episode that happened while on vacation with his in-laws.
“I woke up at a beach house in my in-laws bedroom with a bowl of ice cream,” he laughed. “I was in my in-laws bed, with my mother-in-law sitting up next to me looking astonished, and my father-in-law was coming out the bathroom with the same look on his face.”
Musgrove said that while under the influence of Ambien, he has had hallucinations and entire conversations that he later will have no recollection of. That includes the time he told his fiance at the time that he had bought her an engagement ring.
“But you know, is it better to go your whole life without sleeping, or take some pill that you’re addicted to?” he asked. “I mean, people drink coffee everyday. Not sleeping is tormenting – literally.”
However, Musgrove said his sleeping has improved dramatically in the last months, and he’s able to sleep somewhat normally without the aid of medication.
“I’ve found I have to refocus,” he said. “I have to live in the day, not tomorrow, not 10 years from now. I just have to wake up and say, ‘Today, I live for today, because there’s enough to worry about for today. Tomorrow is tomorrow.’ Since I’ve started thinking that way, I sleep much better.”