I get lots of calls from family members about health problems and it makes me so happy when I can help them or at least, point them in the right direction.  My 93 year old grandmother complains to me about only two things, not including her 98 year old husband.  It is very frustrating for me because the two things that bother her most are  two things that I cannot fix.  She would like me to recommend a cream or a treatment that will get rid of the wrinkles on her face (all 93 years worth) and she cannot sleep.  She swears that she lies in bed all night with her eyes open.  Fighting back the urge to say, “At your age, it is better than the alternative,” I have made several suggestions but none have worked.   As if it isn’t bad enough that all of her organs are past their expiration date, she can’t even get some shut eye to give her the energy to lug them around all day.  She isn’t alone though.  While she is lies there, wondering how she ended up being married to the same man for 72 years, she is joined by about 32 million Americans all staring at their ceilings too.  I doubt that too many of them are thinking the same thing.

1. Insomnia occurs when a person is not getting enough sleep or his or her sleep is of poor quality.  It can happen when you have a hard time falling asleep, when you wake in the night, or when you wake too early in the morning.

2. Insomnia can affect anyone but is more common in women (more evidence that God is a man) and the elderly.  The list of causes is too long for today’s entry as it can result from environmental, physical, emotional and psychological factors.  Everything from a lumpy mattress to a toothache to a bad week at work to depression can keep you awake.  Short-term insomnia is very common and lasts only a few days.  Long-term, or chronic insomnia, lasts more than three weeks.

3. The symptoms of insomnia are exactly what you think they would be.  You toss and turn all night and then you are exhausted the next day.  In addition to just being generally pissed off, people who suffer from chronic insomnia are at increased risk for depression, heart disease, stroke, and obesity.  They have decreased immune function making it harder to fight off illness and to heal.  As my shout-out to this being Drowsy Driving Prevention week, I must mention that those who are sleep-deprived are at greater risk for accident and injury.

4. There are different types of sleep, most familiar are REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM or non-REM.  It is during our REM sleep, the stage that is closest to full consciousness, that we have the dreams that we are most likely to remember.  REM sleep seems to be more important for our psychological well-being and less important for our physical well-being.  People who have interrupted REM sleep, tend to have poor memory, poor focus and are super-sensitive.

5. Those who have interrupted NREM look more tired, are clumsy and sluggish but seem to be able to recover more quickly.  There are four stages of NREM, from falling to sleep to a deeper state of unconsciousness.  NREM and REM cycle about every 90 minutes.  It is during stages 1 and 2 of NREM that you may get that “falling off of a curb” feeling as your body tries to adjust to sleep’s physiological changes.  It is during stages 3 and 4 that you are more difficult to wake.

I must have gotten no rest at all last night and clearly the apple does not fall far from the tree.  I just clumsily tripped into the bathroom, sluggishly gathered my strength to look into the mirror, was shocked at the drawn expression and tired eyes, cried when I looked at all my wrinkles and then forgot why I went in there in the first place.  Grandma, I feel your pain.

Most aspects of sleep are still poorly understood but it is a testimony to how critical a good night’s sleep is that scientists are pursuing this topic so aggressively.  After I had my twins, there were times when I would have gladly given up all my other children for just a few hours sleep.  Little cat naps do not cut it as you need to spend a good portion of the night in all the stages of REM and NREM.  This is probably why cats have such a bad attitude.  If you only sleep for short stints, you will never get there.  Tomorrow, some useful tips and tools for falling asleep and staying asleep.  Sweet Dreams.

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  • Jeanne Delaney

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