Monday, July 16, 2012

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Besides youth, the other thing wasted on the young is sleep. When I was young, I could sleep like the dead for 12 hours and have to be yelled at to get up. I would come in at 3 am from a night out and drag myself out of bed at noon. I'd lay there in a deep sleep without waking up to go to the bathroom. Noises didn't bother me. On those rare occasions when something did wake me, I'd be back in a deep sleep in seconds. I slept soundly in my bed, on the couch, even on the floor if I had to. What I would give today for one night of that sweet, uninterrupted slumber.

I am not alone in having difficulty sleeping as I grow older. Many of my contemporaries long for sleep, and judging from the time stamps on the e-mails I receive from them, they are not finding it. Sleep deprivation can sap your energy, lower your resistance and cause you to nod off in the middle of the afternoon. The market for over-the-counter and prescription sleep medications like Ambien and Lunesta is through the roof despite such possible side effects as dizziness, nausea, vomiting and a feeling that the throat is closing. (Geez, just thinking about those symptoms is enough to keep you awake.) 

My friend Joe was telling me how much he was helped by the device he wears to counteract sleep apnea. It's called a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), unit and delivers a continuous flow of air through the upper respiratory tract, keeping the tissues from collapsing. The CPAP unit consists of a small air pressure generator connected by tubing to a snug-fitting nasal mask that is worn while sleeping. I went for an overnight sleep study once and tried several different types of CPAP devices. I couldn't tolerate any of them; I lay there thinking about breathing and wanted to tear the device off about a minute into the study. As an alternative I tried a dental appliance to help open your airway and that helped some, but was far from perfect.

Something that has helped me without having to go to bed wearing a diving bell is a simple steam inhalator. At bedtime I breathe warm steam for about 10 minutes. This opens my nasal passages and keeps me from waking up because my nose is clogged. I also have a sleep ritual where I attempt to find the perfect sleep position. I sleep on my right side and need to have my cheek against a cool pillow. I use a pillow between my knees to ease pressure on my back. My feet must be touching each other but not pressed too hard together. I use earplugs to drown out noises, and sometimes a nasal strip to help keep my breathing passages open. (Why I think anybody would want to know all this is troubling...even I find it boring.)

Anyhow, what I'm doing works to some degree. I fall asleep almost immediately and stay asleep for around 3-4 hours. Then I wake up and the battle is on. My mind races and I try to fall back to sleep with mixed success. It is during these times that I have the most vivid, bizarre dreams, usually about people I used to work with. I have friends who just get out of bed during the night and watch old movies or hit the computer. I could never do this because it would make going back to bed that much harder. Luckily, being retired, I can wake up any time I want on most mornings, and tend to nap during the afternoon to compensate for lost sleep.

When you're young, sleeping for an uninterrupted 7-8 hours is something you take for granted. Ironically, the young could probably do with less sleep, it's us older folks that need it more. So if I nod off in the middle of one of your more exciting stories, don't take it personally...I just need my sleep.


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