Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Insomnia

Sandra Parshall

I can’t sleep.

Night after night, I either can’t get to sleep or can’t stay asleep. The only member of the household who feels good about this is Emma, who takes being a nocturnal feline seriously and appreciates company while she’s busy being a cat. Our other cat, an Abyssinian named Gabriel, is zonked out by midnight and doesn’t stir until the alarm goes off, if then.

I want to be more like Gabriel and less like Emma.

It’s not that I can’t sleep at all. Put me in a darkened movie theater and I will promptly fall asleep, regardless of how much I want to see the film. I fall asleep during my favorite TV shows. If I stopped typing right now and closed my eyes, I know I would fall asleep at the computer.

What I can’t do is sleep reliably when and where I’m supposed to. Before you rush to suggest counting sheep, drinking milk, etc., let me tell you that I’ve tried everything. I still can’t sleep.

I’m determined to fix this, and I’m attacking the problem the way I approach most situations that need to be changed: I’m researching the heck out of it.

One comforting thing I’ve discovered – although I realize it shouldn’t please me – is that I am far from alone. We have an epidemic of insomnia in the U.S. An estimated 23 percent of workers suffer from it, and the economic toll in lost productivity is in the billions. 
What causes it? According to the National Institutes of Health, we are afflicted with two distinct varieties of sleeplessness: secondary, due to medical problems, medications, and other physical causes; and primary, due to – who knows? I think I have the “who knows?” variety, which means the prospect of relief is not good.

But wait. The February issue of Psychology Today reports on new research into the role that light plays in human wake/sleep cycles. Not just any light, but blue light, part of the visible spectrum of solar rays. During the day, blue light suppresses the release of melatonin, the hormone that puts us to sleep after the sun goes down. If we don’t get enough sun during the day, our natural circadian rhythm is disrupted. The artificial light in the home and workplace is no substitute for natural light.

In short, if you don’t get outdoors in the natural light for at least part of the day, you may not be able to sleep when you go to bed. Furthermore, light rays emitted by TV sets mimic blue light, so if you watch television late at night before retiring, your body will be confused about what time it is.

Epidemiologist Ronald Kessler of Harvard Medical School recommends that employers who want to increase productivity provide workers with a sunshine break every day. That goes for those of us who work at home too. Facing a big window while we work can help. (I face a wall while I’m writing, with the window behind me.) While we’re soaking up the sun’s rays, we should take our sunglasses off, because they can block blue light.

Help is available from another quarter: the light boxes and lamps made for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of cyclical depression caused by lack of sunlight, also work for insomniacs. I’ve just ordered a blue light lamp for my desk. I’ve also promised myself that I will get more natural light, not just during warm weather when I love being outdoors, but during the short, cold days of winter as well.

I look forward to getting a good night’s sleep soon. Emma, you’re on your own.

9 comments:

Harbingerdc said...

I have had the same problem for years and know to stay away from any screen. I've tried both the get up out of bed if you're not sleep and do something until you're tired and the stay in bed if you're not sleeping and let sleep return. Epic fail on both counts. So whether I get up or stay in bed, I usually read a while.

Sheila Connolly said...

Very interesting. My daughter has always had trouble sleeping, as an adult (she's a night person, definitely), and tends to leave a light on in her room at night. Maybe that just compounds the problem. I'll forward this post to her (whenever she wakes up today, her day off).

Jeri Westerson said...

Interesting about the sunshine. I know when I'm camping, the rhythm changes immediately; lots of outdoor time and then darkness around us at the campfire. We're all drifting off...at 8:30!

Leslie Budewitz said...

My husband, a dr of natural medicine, believes sleep deprivation -- some of it intentional -- is a causal factor in many conditions he sees. It can also be diagnostic, because of time-hormone correlations, e.g., if you consistently wake up at 3 a.m., you may have adrenal weakness or exhaustion. So that's another factor to consider.

Beth Groundwater said...

I try to get outside at least once a day for at least fifteen minutes, no matter the weather or temperature. I suggest you try setting the same goal, Sandra. In Breckenridge, my hubby and I have made a habit of taking the 2-block walk every morning to the local newspaper box in a nearby condo complex to pick up the paper. Dog-walking is a similar good excuse to get outside.

Also, it's normal for people to have two 3-4 hour sleep cycles in the night, waking up or partially waking up in between. If you know it's normal and don't worry about it, you may get back to sleep faster. In primitive cultures, where the whole family sleeps in one room/tent, this middle-of-the-night semi-waking period is often when more babies get made. :)

LD Masterson said...

Interesting. I have periodic bouts of insomnia, usually only lasting a few weeks, but I almost always have trouble getting to sleep when I go to bed, even if I've been dozing in front of the TV just minutes before. As soon as my head hits the pillow, my mind kicks into high gear and it can be an hour or more before it winds down enough for me to fall asleep. I'll have to look into the light factor.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Beth makes a good point. I love the trek to the mailbox for just that reason -- and since it's sunny today, as well as cold, I'll head out there right now and dawdle on the way! (We live in the country and the road's several hundred yards from the house.)

Diane said...

Maybe that's my problem, too. Though I've always been a night owl, even as a child. But I seem to be catching naps more during the day and staying up later and later (or - since it's in the middle of the night - earlier and earlier). I used to do just fine on 5-5-1/2 hours a night. Asleep by midnight, up at 5 or 5:30 am. Mostly because I wanted to be on the road to work before traffic was so slow I could walk the 30 miles faster than driving. And, being a lifelong night owl, getting to sleep any earlier wasn't in the cards. Now I'm retired and my whole schedule is in the toilet.

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