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Vail Daily health feature: Three sleep disorders that are keeping Americans awake at night

Tracey Flower
Special to the Weekly
Can't sleep? You're not alone. According to the American Sleep Association (ASA), at least 40 million Americans per year suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders, and an additional 20 million experience occasional sleep problems.
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tips for a good night’s sleep

Even if you’re not suffering from an official sleep disorder, most Americans experience short-term insomnia at some point due to stress, jet lag, diet, or other factors. Here are a few tips to help you fight sleeplessness.

1. Set a schedule. As much as possible, go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Even sleeping in too much on weekends can be enough to throw off your natural sleep cycle; sticking to a schedule can ensure you’re bright-eyed come Monday morning.

2. Exercise. Studies show that daily exercise, of at least 20 to 30 minutes a day, promotes healthy sleep. Just try to get it in 5 to 6 hours before going to bed since working out too late can actually interfere with sleep.

3. Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. That nightcap might knock you out initially, but alcohol actually robs you of deep sleep and REM sleep and keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep.

Source: the American Sleep Association, http://www.sleepassociation.org

There are hundreds of studies that prove the key role sleep plays in maintaining good health, but none of them demonstrate the importance of a great snooze quite like experiencing it for yourself. After a night of quality sleep, you wake up with a clear mind, feeling strong and healthy. Unfortunately, for millions of Americans suffering from sleep disorders, a night of quality sleep is as elusive as that one-eyed albino unicorn that appears in their dreams.

According to the American Sleep Association, at least 40 million Americans per year suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders, and an additional 20 million experience occasional sleep problems. All those sleepless nights can lead to some serious problems.

“Being too sleepy during the day can lead to car accidents and occupational hazards,” said Dr. Thomas Minor, who reads and analyzes the sleep studies conducted at Vail Valley Medical Center Sleep Disorder Center. “There’s also evidence that shows sleep deprivation causes hormonal issues and can even lead to a shortened life expectancy.”

Lack of sleep can also cause poor performance at work and irritability that can put a strain on personal and professional relationships.

Trying to lose weight? It turns out sleep deprivation can hinder your efforts and even lead to weight gain.

“Sleep deprivation leads to obesity,” Minor said. “There’s a lot of research that shows sleep deprived people eat more and eat richer, calorie-dense food.”

While it’s clear a lack of sleep can cause some serious issues, sometimes the underlying problem behind a person’s sleeplessness is a little less clear. According to the ASA, there are more than 70 known sleep disorders, some more common than others. Most of these disorders are entirely treatable, but the first challenge lies in diagnosis, which can be tricky, especially when the issue is a lesser-known disorder. Take, for example, delayed sleep phase syndrome.

DELAYED SLEEP PHASE SYNDROME

Parents take note: Your teen’s tendency to sleep until noon on Saturday and reluctance to get out of bed in time for school on Monday morning isn’t necessarily a symptom of laziness. He or she could be afflicted with delayed sleep phase syndrome, a circadian rhythm sleep disorder that is relatively common in adolescents and even occurs in some adults.

According to the ASA, delayed sleep phase syndrome is one of many circadian rhythm sleeping disorders. Circadian rhythms are regular changes in mental and physical characteristics that occur during the course of a day; these changes help your body know when it’s time to sleep. Circadian rhythm disorders are caused by the body’s internal clock not resetting and not adapting to changes in sleeping patterns or doing so slowly.

In the case of delayed sleep phase syndrome, the individual with the disorder has a natural inclination to go to bed later and wake up later than what is typically considered normal.

“This is where we find what you call a night owl. Their natural body rhythm wants to stay up late and sleep in,” Minor said. “The person suffering from this syndrome will say ‘I feel terrible in the morning; I can’t fall asleep until 2 or 4 a.m. and struggle to get out of bed before 10.’ The issue is they’re trying to go to bed at the wrong time for their circadian rhythm.”

Treatment often includes light therapy, which involves avoiding bright light and LED screens in the evening and getting extra bright light in the morning, which helps to shift the patient’s natural cycle forward.

CENTRAL SLEEP APNEA

While some people struggle to fall asleep on time, others fall asleep with no trouble but experience issues after they’ve drifted off to dreamland. For those living in and visiting Colorado’s high country, one of the most common sleep issues is central sleep apnea.

“Central sleep apnea is the classic sleep disorder that presents at altitude,” said Minor, who treats patients in both Vail and on the Front Range.

“Apnea literally means without breath,” he said. “In the case of sleep apnea, a person intermittently stops breathing at night, either because their airway is blocked or because their brain isn’t sending the right cues to their body to breathe. Especially at high altitudes they can go through cycles where they over breathe and then under breathe. This can be happening hundreds of times during a night, which causes the brain to signal the body to wake up, therefore disrupting sleep.”

Sleep apnea, especially central sleep apnea, can be tough to diagnose since the person suffering from the disorder is often unaware of it. This is not the case in another, lesser-known sleep disorder, in which the sufferer is most certainly aware of what is happening.

EXPLODING HEAD SYNDROME

Imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by a very loud bang — like a gunshot next to your head — and bright flash of light. You gasp and, as you try to slow your heartbeat and recover your breath, you begin to investigate the source of the noise. You turn on the lights, peek around the curtains and poke your partner, who has magically managed to sleep through the ruckus. You realize that nothing, and no one, else has been rattled by the sound. You start to wonder if you’re going crazy as you tuck yourself back into bed and try to fall back asleep. And then it happens again.

You’re not crazy, but it is all in your head. This scenario is experienced by those suffering from a rare sleep disorder known as exploding head syndrome, and its signature symptom is being awakened by a loud bang and bright flash of light, both of which happen in your head.

The name of the disorder might sound sci-fi, but the disorder is very real and, while not physically damaging, those who have experienced it report feeling a sense of fear that is sometimes severe enough to cause insomnia.

According to the ASA, the syndrome is thought to be connected to stress and extreme fatigue in most of its victims. What actually causes the sensation in individuals is still unknown, though speculation of possible sources includes minor seizures affecting the temporal lobe in the brain or sudden shifts in middle ear components.

People ages 50 and older are most likely to experience this syndrome though it has been reported in people as young as 10 years old. Women experience it more often than men.

The list of disorders that keep Americans up at night can go on and on, and if you think you may be suffering from one of these, or another syndrome, or if you just don’t think you’re getting enough proper sleep, then it may be time to see a doctor.

“If you’re snoring, if your bed partner sees you stop sleeping or even if you experience unexplained sleepiness during the day, then it’s time to talk to your doctor,” Minor said. “Bring your bed partner to the appointment with you if you can, and be prepared to describe how your sleepiness is impacting how you function in the daytime and to describe your typical bedtime routine. A big sign that something might be wrong is if you’re getting eight hours of sleep a night but still feel overly tired during the day.”


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