Scientists Looking at Sleep Disorders Have Made Some Eye-Opening Discoveries


Although sleep patterns may change over the years, scientists know that restless sleep is not an inevitable part of aging.

In fact, troubled sleep may be a sign of emotional or physical disorders and should be evaluated by a doctor or sleep specialist.

At any age there are some common sleep disorders. Tossing and turning all night is one example of insomnia, but there are others. Taking more than 30 to 45 minutes to fall asleep, waking up many times each night, or waking up early and being unable to get back to sleep can mean you have insomnia.

With rare exceptions, insomnia is the symptom of a problem, not the problem itself.

Snoring may signal another sleep disorder--apnea. In this situation, the individual stops breathing for brief periods each night. Loud snoring coupled with daytime sleepiness may be symptoms of sleep apnea. A doctor specializing in sleep disorders can make a definite diagnosis and recommend treatment.

Unusual leg movements, called nocturnal myoclonus or periodic movements of sleep, also are common. Although scientists don't know what causes these leg movements, sometimes medication can bring relief. Mild cases may be helped by leg exercises.

Scientists researching sleep disorders have made some interesting discoveries. For example, Dr. Charles Czeisler and colleagues at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and Harvard University, in a project funded by the National Institute on Aging, report that the body's internal biological clock is far more sensitive to light than previously thought.

In fact, Czeisler found that light may be the single most important factor in resetting this clock. Using this information, Czeisler and his colleagues have begun to treat some of the common sleep-related complaints of older patients.

Other scientists are investigating the changes occurring in sleep and wakefulness as people age. Research also is exploring various treatments for sleep disorders and examining what the medical profession and the public need to know about good sleep practices.

However, there are some things we already know:

* Follow a regular schedule. Go to sleep and get up at the same time each day.

* Try to exercise at regular times each day. Moderate physical activity two to four hours before bedtime may improve sleep. Check with a doctor before beginning any exercise program.

* To adjust the internal sleep clock, try to get some exposure to the natural light in the afternoon each day.

* Develop a bedtime routine. Do the same things each night to tell your body it's time to wind down. Some people watch the evening news, read a book, or soak in a warm bath.

* Don't drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes to help you sleep. Drinking even small amounts of alcohol can make it harder to stay asleep. Smoking is not only dangerous (the hazards of falling asleep with a lit cigarette), but nicotine is a stimulant.

* Be aware of what you eat. Avoid caffeinated beverages late in the day. Caffeine is a stimulant. If you like a snack before bed, a glass of warm milk may help you relax.

* After turning off the light, give yourself about 15 minutes to fall asleep. If you still are awake, or lose your drowsiness, get up and go into another room until you feel sleepy again.

* Try not to worry about sleep. Playing mental games may help. For example, think black--a black cat on a black pillow on a black sofa, etc.

If you are so tired during the day that you cannot function, and this fatigue lasts more than two to three weeks, see a doctor.

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