An exploration of sleep and insomnia, with a single destination in mind:
a good night's sleep.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Homeopathic Insomnia Treatment: Possibly Effective, But Not for the Reason You Think

Here's an interesting conundrum for you: Homeopathy is quackery, but homeopathic remedies resolve some people's sleep problems. How? How can homeopathic substances, which contain no biologically active ingredients and are are mere water, work for insomnia?

The answer rests in part with the powerful placebo effect. Placebos can be so potent that they even work when you know you're taking a fake medicine. But the other part of the answer has to do with the fact that sleep, perhaps more than any other aspect of biology, is interwoven with our mind as well as our body. What's cooking in your head is something that nobody else can see or know, but it can affect your sleep in powerful ways. (Who hasn't been kept up at night because of some worry?)

There are any number of homeopathic remedies for insomnia, such as aconite for sudden onset insomnia caused by fright or sadness, and coffee, used to treat insomnia that stems from a restless mind. None of these is proven to be effective, and yet all can be.

The answer also rests with the fact that sleep is highly individualistic: Conditions that are sleep-inducing for one person --a warm room illuminated with flickering candles, for instance-- might be somebody else's stay-awake nightmare. Some people can sleep on planes, but others can't.

There is no laboratory test for good sleep. There is no way for a doctor to measure if you've got a good night sleep the night before. For many medical conditions there are objective measures to tell if you'be been cured (the  fever's gone, the tumor's vanished, the bone has healed), but the only person who can tell if you've had a good night's sleep is you. Did you get a good night's sleep after taking the homeopathic remedy aconite? Did you get a second good night's sleep, too? Then all that matters is that you and dreamland are in good company. Whether or not a particular substance or device has a demonstrable effect or is a placebo is beside the point: It's the result that matters.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Can Sleeping Pills Shorten Your Lifespan?

A Canadian study suggests that taking sleeping pills can shorten your lifespan. This 12-year study, which surveyed 14,000 Canadian. The study revealed that taking sleeping pills once a month can reduce the your lifespan by 36 percent. People over age 55 were most afflicted. Keep in mind that one study is not medical proof, but it is something to ponder before you pop that Ambien or Lunesta. More research into this will shed more light on this potential danger.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Looking for Sleep? Ask Your Doctor Where to Find It

The best place to start your quest for sleep may be your doctor. (And if you don't have one, consider visiting a nurse practitioner in your community. A nurse practitioner is a registered nurse who's undergone additional training in the treatment of disease, including chronic conditions.)

What can a doctor do for you? In addition to years of medical school, residency, and continuing education, your doctor has seen countless patients, many of whom have sleeping problems. Most people know only a handful of others with insomnia, but doctors have a wealth of practical experience dealing with the countless conditions that can contribute to sleeplessness.

More importantly, a doctor can diagnose any underlying medical condition that might be causing you to lose sleep. Sleep apnea, a condition in which you're not getting enough oxygen is one condition. (If your doctor suspects sleep apnea, he or she will suggest a sleep study.) Anxiety is another -- it can cause insomnia and it can be a result of insomnia. Hyperthyroidism can also lead to sleepless nights.

Your doctor will start with a thorough medical history. Tests, perhaps, may be warranted, too.  Or perhaps a visit to a specialist. Everything has a beginning, and when it comes to dealing with insomnia, the best place to start is with your doctor.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sleep and the Noise Paradox

Ecotones Sleep Sound Machine
Leaf blowers, dripping faucets, low-battery smoke detector signals, snoring, the TV in the hotel room next door, woodpeckers -- these are just some of the noises that can keep you up at night. While everyone has their own tolerance for sound (and there are a miraculous few who can sleep through anything), most people are bothered by noise. Most people need a quiet room to fall asleep.

Paradoxically, a lot of people like to fall asleep to the television, radio, soothing voices, white noise or music. TV and music let them fall asleep more quickly. Why? Why do some sounds work as a soporific, while others, such as hearing faint talking, are irritating stimulants?

The answer is both complicated and not all that important. Sleep is highly individualistic, interacting with so many factors, including stress, temperature, what you ate and drank recently, pillow quality, medications, your genetic makeup, ambient light, age, what you're wearing to bed, and if you're sleeping alone, to name a few.  Sounds can keep your mind from focusing on work, personal relationships, money, and other stressors. Sound can be like the refrain from the Beatles song that goes, "I'm fixin' a hole where the rain comes in, and stops my mind from wanderin'."  The dialog of a familiar movie or the sound of a thunderstorm played over your stereo can do just that: keep your mind from wandering toward thoughts that prevent you from falling asleep.

Sound can mask sound: Ocean waves or having Conan O'Brien on in the background can help block out a neighbor's party or your kids thumping around upstairs. Fighting sound with sound is so popular that there are machines you can buy for that specific purpose.

The "why" question about sleep is interesting, and possibly helpful, but because there are so many varied, individual causes when it comes to a good night's sleep, the "why" question is mostly just that -- interesting from an academic perspective. The real and essential question is: Does this sleep tip work for you?

So we have a paradox of sorts: Some sounds thwart sleep; other sounds can promote sleep.

If you're wandered through life as a bad sleeper, a light sleeper, or have recently become one, then perhaps you should give falling asleep to sound a whirl. In future posts here I'll be writing more about how to use sound to fall asleep and stay asleep, as well as reviewing specific tunes and machines.

People who live and grow up in cities find the country sounds --crickets, rustling branches, birds-- hard to sleep through. And country-dwellers are often kept awake at night by a city's busy noises. The sounds that one person likes might not work for you. Using sound to fall asleep and stay asleep may require experimentation and tinkering.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Sleep Problems: Cause or Effect?


You think you know what's keeping you up at night:  But can you be sure? The light streaming under the door bothers you; sleeping on your left side is uncomfortable; you hear a ringing sound in your ear when it's quiet; your calf aches; heartburn stings. These are just a few of the hundreds of issues that people complain about, which they say are preventing them from getting a good night's sleep.

Maybe. Maybe not. Take the case of a young man who was suffering from frequent nighttime urination. He would have to get up several times a night to go to the bathroom -- something that's very uncommon in somebody in his 30's. After weeks of very interrupted sleep, he visited a urologist, who, in addition to performing multiple tests, suggested that maybe it wasn't his bladder that was waking him up. Perhaps it was something else --noise, for instance-- that was waking him up, and when he woke up, he felt that he had to go to the bathroom. In other words, the cause of this man's sleepless nights might not have been what he thought it was. An indeed, once he had an idea of what to look for, he did just that and found that every time his girlfriend turned over in bed, she pulled the blanket and that was what woke him up.

The lesson of this story is that it may take some investigation to figure out why you're not sleeping well. (And it's also possible that there's more than one cause for sleeplessness.)  Don't just assume that your first guess is the right guess.