Sleep specialist says there are diagnostic methods and treatments for those with sleep disorders, and simple lifestyle changes that can help the rest of us
This was a speech that put no one to sleep. But with any luck, it will later.
“Sleepless in Manitoba — staying awake on the job” was the title of a presentation given by Dr. Carlyle Smith, a psychology professor and director of Trent University’s sleep research laboratories at last week’s Ag Days.
A restless night can do a lot more than leave you cranky the next day — especially if you operate heavy equipment or do a lot of driving, Smith noted.
“Many, many accidents are caused by falling asleep,” said Smith, often when tired people succumb to the temptation to shut their eyes “just for a minute.”
The key in getting good-quality sleep is doing it when you’re supposed to — in bed at night.
Smith detailed the two components of sleep — non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) phases.
Brain wave monitoring reveals a busy brain in REM sleep because you’re dreaming. This is also when your body is in a state of paralysis, with only the eye muscles moving. Not getting enough of this type of sleep can lead to clinical depression, up the odds of suffering a heart attack or stroke, and affect memory loss.
Tossing and turning
As many as 40 per cent of Canadians suffer from insomnia. Some have trouble falling asleep, while others don’t stay asleep or wake early.
Many take pills for their insomnia, but pill potency wears off and there are other health-related risks associated with sleep medication, the doctor said.
The best treatment for insomnia is cognitive behaviour therapy, which gets at the root of the cause.
“It takes several weeks to get results, but it works,” said Smith.
Sleep apnea, when there’s repetitive airway blockage and breathing starts and stops, is another common problem. It’s most common in men, who often have no idea they’re suffering from this particular disorder. Typically, a spouse seeks help for it because they hear their partner’s blisteringly loud snoring.
“Twenty to 25 per cent of us actually snore, and that’s OK,” he said. “But this is snoring like a truck. This is really, really loud stuff. It’s ear splitting.”
Sleep apnea must be treated because you’re essentially starving your brain of oxygen, Smith said.
“Most important here, if you have any idea that you have this, and you’re thinking you’ll just let it go, remember this… at some point in your night you can have up to 70 per cent less oxygen in your brain,” said Smith.
“What happens is your cells die in the thousands, and ones that are really important, the ones for doing your mental calculations. And it happens every night with people who have this problem.”
Many farmers are prone to sleep problems because they live a life similar to shift workers — often rising early and soldiering on into the night, and sometimes going round the clock.
This disrupts the body’s natural temperature and sleep cycles and effectively produces jet lag, he said.
The body actually wants you to go to bed at the same time every night and to get up at the same time every morning, Smith said.
He has numerous suggestions for prompting better sleep, including avoiding alcohol and heavy meals before bedtime and giving oneself a period of quiet-down time, including turning off screens. Recommended snacks before bed are small portions of a carb and a protein, such as milk and cereal, or cheese and crackers.
A perfect snack is a small turkey sandwich because you’re getting the L-tryptophan, a natural sleep inducer found in turkey, along with the carb of the rest of the sandwich.
Counter to what some might think, hot beverages or hot baths can actually disrupt falling asleep because they drive the body temperature up. Sleep happens when the body temperature drops.
“It has the opposite effect you want. It’s keeping you awake.”
Smith also highly recommends naps.
“They’re good for you,” he said.
Lastly, don’t let pets you allow on the bed to interrupt your sleep, and invest in a good mattress.
Money spent on a good mattress is an investment in preventive health, Smith said, plus it’s a sensible “cost-per-wear” investment given the average person spends one-third — or 20 to 25 years — of his or her life sleeping.
If you’ve bought a mattress and you don’t think it’s working out for you, consider buying another, he said.