Wake-Up Call

Long- and short-term effects of sleep disorders go beyond just feeling groggy


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By Lexi Trimpe

Before being treated for narcolepsy, Rebecca Lesser was constantly exhausted. The Oak Park resident, 51, would sit “and poke a pencil in my leg in meetings trying to keep myself awake.” 

Lesser struggled with exhaustion for most of her life. Before she was diagnosed and treated, she was a computer programmer and had to be at work by 9 a.m. 

Lesser says even if she woke up at 6 a.m., she would feel lost all morning long, causing her to always be late for work. “Luckily they came up with flex time, but even with that, sometimes if it was a bad day, it was a very bad day,” she says.  

Lesser isn’t alone. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, some 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders annually. An additional 20 million experience occasional sleeping problems. Common disorders include sleep apnea, narcolepsy, insomnia, and restless legs syndrome.

The long- and short-term effects of these disorders go beyond than simply feeling groggy. 

Miller Morgan of Wayne, 50, can attest to that. A few years ago, Morgan, who travels frequently for work, began to experience crippling exhaustion and depression. He felt terrible all the time, and “every day was a battle,” he says. 

After trying a variety of treatments with his doctor, including antidepressants, he was instructed to take part in a sleep study, which found Morgan stopped breathing up to 95 times per hour. He was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. 

According to Dr. Hillary Loomis-King, a sleep specialist at the University of Michigan Health System, obstructive sleep apnea is described as the narrowing or closing off of the airway during sleep, caused by a variety of factors including obesity. This obstruction causes a lowering in blood-oxygen levels, resulting in disruptions to the sleep cycle and increased cardiac stress. Obstructive sleep apnea is by far the most common sleep disorder Loomis-King sees.

Soon, Morgan was fitted for a continuous positive airway pressure therapy (CPAP) machine, which supplies a constant and steady stream of air through a facial mask, which is used while sleeping. 

Using his CPAP, Morgan experienced a lifestyle change that extended way beyond his sleeping habits. 

“My whole life changed when I started using the machine,” he says. “You feel better when you’re rested. You want to do more things. You want to take care of yourself. You want to go places.” With a new handle on life, Morgan has begun watching what he eats and losing weight, 20 pounds so far. He even recently began going to the spa.  

But what does sleep do for us beyond making us feel rested? And why is it so important? 

Dr. Luisa Bazan, who specializes in sleep medicine at Henry Ford Hospital, says one theory for why we sleep is memory restoration.

“Some studies have shown that the toxins that are produced in the brain are actually cleared through our sleep,” Bazan says. “Some of the toxins, or some of the proteins, that are there and we clear are related to different types of dementia.” 

Loomis-King adds other cognitive issues include problems with attention. Studies show that people’s physical abilities to do things that required coordination and concentration were impaired “after a very short period of sleep deprivation, whether that be from sleep apnea or from just not sleeping enough, in general,” she says. Research has also linked sleep deprivation to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac problems. 

How much sleep we need can vary from person to person, with a variety of determining factors, including age and gender. “Typically, our sleep time, if we look at studies, should be eight hours and 15 minutes, but it can vary,” says Bazan. “If you are sleeping seven hours and feel refreshed, that should be OK. Some people need nine hours to feel refreshed, and that’s what they should achieve.” 

In February, the National Sleep Foundation refreshed their recommendations for the number of hours of sleep needed, breaking down the age groups into new categories. Young adults ages 18-25 and adults ages 26-64 should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Older adults ages 65 and older should be getting 7-8 hours. 

In Michigan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a 2008-09 survey that 28 percent of adults reported not getting enough sleep on more than 14 days in the previous 30 days. The survey also found that the prevalence of self-reported insufficient sleep was higher among women than men. 

Operating a car or machinery while sleep deprived is a major concern. Dr. Gary Trock, a sleep specialist and neurologist at Beaumont Hospital, cites excessive sleepiness as the second most common cause of fatal car accidents, next to alcohol. “The Exxon Valdez (oil spill) was caused by the person falling asleep when they were driving the boat. A lot of major accidents, major industrial and truck accidents, are caused by sleepiness.” 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths. The NHTSA also explains it is widely recognized that drowsy driving is underreported as a cause of crashes. 

Proper sleep hygiene is the first step toward restful, restorative sleep. Specialists recommend maintaining a normal sleep pattern, even on weekends, avoiding caffeine in the evening, and not using technology like cellphones and tablets before going to bed. 

 Although our increasingly busy lives make sleepiness commonplace, it’s important to not ignore it. While there may not be a magic number of hours of sleep needed, or a be-all end-all cure for sleep disorders, there is an important rule of thumb: If you’re drowsy to the point that it affects your day-to-day life, seek help. 

That’s what Morgan did. He says he “laid around for a year and half” before a doctor helped him from hitting bottom.

“I know I couldn’t go on living like I was,” he says. “ … Now I can do anything. Now I’m like a normal person.” 

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