Sleep, glorious sleep: How to get more, better, sooner

“I can drink coffee and sleep just fine.” “I can watch horror movies and fall right asleep.”

Comments like these at the third Community Health Series talk at The Greens at Cannondale didn’t surprise Dr. Ian Weir, director of Norwalk Hospital’s Insomnia Center. Sleep is complicated. Like fingerprints, everyone has their own distinctive pattern.

“Insomnia and sleep apnea are among the most unpleasant and potentially serious health hazards,” said Dr. Weir. He sees many sleep-disturbed patients who can’t fall asleep easily, who fall asleep for a couple of hours and can’t get back to sleep, and some who think they never sleep.

“Americans are sleep-deprived, and that includes teenagers to 90-plus people,” he said.

One of the more serious reasons for insomnia is sleep apnea, which blocks normal breathing during sleep and usually causes heavy snoring. Diagnoses of apnea are relatively recent and so is the current remedy, a CPAP mask (continuous positive airway pressure). This restores normal breathing during sleep and usually ends snoring. Though sleep apnea is thought to be limited to older, overweight males, women and children can also have apnea and it can affect overall health.

Dr. Weir gave everyone a list of rules for better sleep hygiene, some of them quite stringent.

“Don’t go to bed unless you’re sleepy. If you’re still not asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed, don’t toss and turn. Don’t read, write, eat, watch TV, talk on the phone, or play cards in bed. Don’t have beer, wine or any alcoholic beverage within six hours of bedtime.”

For several people in the audience, these rules made them wonder: Is sleep worth all this austerity?  Yes! If omitting caffeine after lunch will assure a good night’s sleep, it’s certainly worth it. But there’s no one guarantee. Vowing to get up at the same time every morning, even on weekends and holidays, isn’t easy, but Dr. Weir’s message was that a regular schedule helps the body establish a healthy routine.

The doctor is probably one of the few proponents of boredom.

“Pick a boring book or magazine to read in the evening.” (He did not suggest specific titles.) “Instead of setting the alarm to wake you in the morning, set the alarm to tell you it’s time to get ready for bed.”

Dr. Weir dispensed some interesting facts. Caffeine is a drug that takes six hours to metabolize. (Hence the none-after-lunch advice.) Caffeine can also harm the brain’s neurotransmitters, the way alcohol can. This will be news to those who say caffeine makes them feel sharper.

As usual at these talks, there were many urgent questions from the audience. One man asked why, when you’re in the hospital, you’re awakened at 2 a.m. to take a sleeping pill. Another gentleman asked about nocturia, an elegant way to describe several trips to the bathroom each night to urinate.

Dr. Weir, like all Health Series experts, was very honest.

“No doctor knows everything, but the best thing you can do to have a good night’s sleep is to be active, be engaged, be social. Sitting around all day isn’t good preparation for bedtime. If you feel drowsy around 2 to 3 p.m. that’s a normal alertness dip. If you have to take a nap, don’t make it longer than 10 minutes. Too frequent napping can cause insomnia.”

Many in the audience were concerned about their grandchildren’s sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation mimics attention deficit disorder (ADD). Teenagers are often given medication for ADD when the actual problem may be sleep deprivation.

Admittedly, there’s an awful lot some have to do to get some sleep, but insomnia is a debilitating, joyless existence. It can be cured, but you may have to change your habits for the rest of your life.

On Thursday, May 9, the Health Series continues with “Dieting Effectively,” and the topic for May 16 is “Osteo and Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

The series is free. Dinner is at 5:30, with the presentation at 6. The Greens at Cannondale is at 435 Danbury Road. Please RSVP at 203-761-1191.