Dreamland Wasn't Always So Far Away

All my life I'd been a fantastic sleeper, able to drop off immediately and fall into the most wonderful slumber. As a child, I slept through the noise of freight trains and marching bands, jet planes and alarm clocks. And even after my babies were born, my husband sometimes had to wake me at feeding times.

Then, all of a sudden, about three months ago, I lost it--lost the heavenly gift of sound sleep. Only then, I must admit, did I truly appreciate what I'd had.

Instead of waking with the energy of three people, I would open my bleary eyes and immediately plan a hole in my day for a long nap, then look forward to that nap with all the excitement of a 4-year-old at Disneyland. Instead of feeling cheerful, I was downright grumpy; a smile and a good word took more energy than I could sometimes muster. And instead of exercising diligently, well, let's just say I went through the motions--the minimum number of motions.

Sleep, oh sleep. How I missed you!

Fatigue from lack of sleep turns out to be a problem of epidemic proportions in America. With our society moving at the speed of a computer, people work harder and longer than ever before. When they finally fall into bed, they're exhausted, but not relaxed, so their bodies have a harder time moving through the proper stages of sleep. Then they have to rise too soon, and another day of exhaustion begins.

The result takes its toll on productivity. The under-slept are less likely to sustain concentration, whether it's in the classroom, boardroom or assembly line, because simple tasks stop being routine. And a severely under-slept or chronically fatigued person may suffer sensory distortion, unpredictable mood shifts, headaches and blurred vision.

That makes safety a big issue as well. Suffice it to say that on the Monday morning after we move the clock forward to begin daylight saving time, that lost hour contributes to a 15% increase in traffic accidents. Not surprisingly, the Monday after we return to standard time--having gained an hour--traffic accidents decline by a similar percentage.

Some people who suffer sleeplessness resort to sleeping pills as a remedy. But taking them creates other problems. Not only do barbiturates suppress REM sleep, interrupting the dream cycles that the brain must move through to stay sane, but they can also produce a rebound effect, making the user unable to fall asleep at all.

Now, not everyone needs eight hours of sleep. Some need more; some less. The rule of a good night's sleep is an individual one: Sleep as much or as little as you need to feel refreshed, alert and in good spirits.

The question, of course, is how to do that. Sleep experts offer some tips.

* Try to go to bed relaxed. If necessary, read, listen to music, take a warm bath, do progressive relaxation exercises, make love.

* Don't overexert immediately before bedtime. Try to exercise no later than the early evening. But do exercise!

* Establish a regular sleeping schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night if you can, but even if you can't, wake up at the same time every morning.

* When you can't fall asleep within 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing. Don't return until you're sleepy enough to fall asleep. Confine your bedroom activities to sleeping and love-making.

* If a sore, aching back contributes to your sleeping poorly, try stretching exercises or yoga at the end of the day.

As you can see, misery caused by not sleeping properly forced me to research the topic in my usual fashion. I followed every expert tip, then compiled my own checklist ofthings or activities that could have been the culprit. I refused to accept the possibility, as some well-meaning friends suggested, that I was "just getting older now."

I went down the list with a pencil. Caffeine? No. I never drink coffee, only herbal teas. (If you are a caffeine consumer, the rule is to avoid it at least three hours before going to bed.)

Chocolate? Yeah, there's some caffeine in it, but since I only have a little twice a week, it had to be something else. Otherwise, I'd have slept well the other nights.

Exercise? I wasn't overdoing it (because I was too tired), and certainly not late in the day.

Food? While too little food (an extreme diet) or too much will disrupt the body's circadian rhythms, I hadn't changed my eating at all.

Personal problems? Yeah, sure. Everybody's got worries. But they weren't any more than usual. Besides, I'd been taking warm baths, listening to soft music, doing my progressive relaxation techniques, meditating and curling up with a good book in front of the fire before bed. By the time I closed my eyes, I was only thinking about sleep.

Suddenly, it dawned on me: my bed.

Trying to figure out what I'd been doing wrong, I'd missed the forest for the trees. I'd gotten so used to my 10-year-old mattress that I'd forgotten what it was like not to sleep on springs and seams that felt like the Himalayas under my back. But obviously, my body hadn't forgotten.

I went down to the mattress store, where I took hours to decide on a new bed, rolling from one to another to another until I'd narrowed my choices down to four . . . then three . . . two . . . and finally one--one that cost enough to make me say to the salesman, "Excuse me, did I hear you right?"

But as he pointed out, I'll be spending eight hours a night, every night, for the next 10 years on this thing. "It's only pennies a night," he said, adding that people frequently spend more than $1,000 for a couch they rarely sit on.

I did the math, then contemplated a return to deep and wonderful sleep. At a few cents a night, I couldn't afford not to buy it.

And you know what? Every night when I lie down on my new mattress and fall into the sleep of the blessed, and every morning when I wake rested and cheerful, raring to go, I'm reassured that this was a superb investment in my own health and well-being.

So if lost sleep is a mystery in your life, be your own detective. Study the clues your body is giving you, and solve the dilemma. Because in the quest for a healthy body and mind, nothing can take the place of a good night's sleep.

Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

* Kathy Smith's column appears every Monday in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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