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October 1998 Issue
Go to Sleep Nowzzzzzzzz
by Michael Fick
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It's pushing midnight, but you aren't ready to go to bed yet. Too much on your mind. Like most of us, you function better and live longer on eight or nine hours' sleep, but your alarm goes off in just seven hours.

Oh, well, seven it is. You turn off the TV, flip the pillow over to its cool side, sigh, squirm, and start to fade. As you drift off, you start hazily thinking about a whole litany of hassles: 1. You just know you'll find tomorrow morning's newspaper in the mud puddle under the new hedge. Your jaw tightens a bit, and suddenly you're not as drowsy as you were a minute ago. Oh, well, 6:45 is as good as 7 hours' sleep.

You fade again, but ... 2. Darn that kid! You noticed another speeding ticket on his dresser. Then 3,  the boss's criticism, and 4, that elusive customer. And, 5, isn't it time to change the paper in the bird cage?

And, oh, yeah ... 6: Think the police will connect your mother-in-law's disappearance to your bull-horned threat to bury her bossy butt under that new hedge?

It's always something!

Soon the time left before the alarm goes off dwindles to five hours, then four, before you finally pass out. You'd survive four hours' sleep, but you wake up two hours later wondering whether, 7, you buried her left hand -- rigidly displaying her final defiant gesture -- deeply enough.

Darn; another night's sleep shot, just because your active mind makes so much ado about nothing.

Or are you one of those who sleep well if everything is perfect, but every little glitch wakes you up? The dog's collar jingles, it's too warm, a car alarm goes off on the next block, an ant drops the lint ball he was carrying, or you drank a liter of Mountain Dew during Leno, and you're wide awake.

Or maybe you always pass out quickly and stay unconscious all night  yet sleep right through the alarm nine hours later -- and remain dog tired all day.

Insufficient sleep -- called insomnia if it's not caused by insufficient sack time -- is easy to identify: if you are sleepy when you should be awake and refreshed, you didn't get enough sleep. (If you have narcolepsy, that's a whole 'nuther animal. Get treatment.) If meetings, driving, reruns, sky diving in thunderstorms, or life in general leave you so sleepy you get whiplash and your eyeballs converge at your nose, you have a sleep problem, and it's hurting your health. Doctors may run tests for chronic fatigue syndrome and other medical maladies before slapping their foreheads in recognition when you casually mention, $1,245 later, that you get by just fine on five hours of sleep every night. No, you don't. That's why you're seeing the doctor!

The three primary types of sleep problems are a) can't fall asleep, b) can't stay asleep, and c) remain exhausted after plenty of sleep. We're not going to fix all that in a thousand words, but a quick drink from the fire hose can point you in the right direction. Open wide!

Too much on your mind to fall asleep? Write it down on the pad you keep beside the bed for that purpose. Given the mental hassles above, write down this list: "1. Don't pay for wet newspapers. 2. Ground Junior. 3. Tell Mr. Leadbottom that criticizing us in public is destroying office morale. 4. Buy a book on salesmanship. 5. Tweety's paper is fine; the stupid bird doesn't read that fast. 6. She survived my "Die, Mrs. Honkerbenuggy" billboard and sky writing last month, so who's gonna pay any attention to this? 7. Dog doo (to remind you what you covered her final salute with). Literally write this stuff down, now, in the dark if possible.

Zzzzzzzzzzz.

If your mind is churning near bedtime, jot down the issue(s) before you get ready for bed. If you can't solve the tougher problems, you'll at least relax after just identifying them and listing some possible solutions to try. It's a great solution to bedtime brain turmoil.

Do you wake up at 3:00 AM feeling as though you just won a pizza eating contest and someone turned the thermostat up to 90? We covered that a few months ago: eat supper in the morning and breakfast at night. A healthy evening meal emphasizing carbohydrates (e.g., cereal, pancakes, French toast, juice, even eggs and 1% milk) helps us go to sleep and stay asleep. The usual supper laden with fat and protein does just the opposite to many people. (If cereal doesn't fill you up... duh, get a bigger bowl.)

If you won't try switching breakfast and supper, at least eat supper much earlier and take an anti-acid pill such as Pepcid before going to bed.

Other habits that interfere with sleep include smoking or drinking alcohol or drinking anything in quantity within a few hours of bedtime. Do you really expect a pint of beer or milk to let you sleep for eight hours if your bladder is over 30? Even wine wakes you up soon, because that's one of the things alcohol does for a living. Naps, sleeping in on weekend mornings, exercising after supper, an unresolved argument, or a rousing TV show or book can all interfere with sleep.

What helps? Regular exercise earlier in the day; a gentle, warm shower or bath before bed; sex; a consistent bedtime preparation routine; light reading or music; deleting Mrs. Honkerbenuggy from your speed dialer.

Experts quibble over whether we should get up and do something else if we can't get to sleep. Some say to get up after 20 minutes and do something quiet and boring until you feel sleepy. Others say lying there and trying to stay awake induces sleep. And some say to lie there quietly, because bedrest beats no rest. Experiment to see what works best for you.

Sleeping pills are only for escaping occasional major problems for a few nights. No sleeping pills, "natural" or otherwise, are considered safe and effective for long-term regular use. If you always need sleeping pills, that in itself is a problem.

Light sleeper? Throw money at the problem. Install an air conditioner in the bedroom window or wall (best $300 I ever spent on sleep!), buy some thick curtains to block noise and light, buy a $30 noise masking device at Costco, raise the head of your bed a few inches, ban work from the bedroom, get a bedroom humidifier or dehumidifier, sleep with a pillow under (while on your back) or between (while on your side) your knees, get a better mattress and pillow, face the clock away from you, and remove Barky's jangly collar. And stop feeding Barky meat at night if necessary!

Roommate snoring too much? Get it treated. Losing even a little weight can stop snoring, as can the old tennis-ball-sewn-into-the-back-of-the-PJs trick. Those "Breathe Right" nose strips the NFL players wear help many people stop snoring. Surgery may help, but get several opinions first. Drugs such as alcohol and antihistamines can increase snoring.

If you sleep for eight-nine hours and remain exhausted, maybe you're a chronic sleep-walker or have apnea. Your partner can observe and alert you to either, even if that partner is just a tape recorder.

If some unknown dish fairy did your dishes last night and the masking tape across the bedroom floor is disturbed, you sleepwalk, and thus sleep ineffectively. If your tape recorder or partner says you repeatedly hold your breath for 10-100 seconds then explosively snore as you resume breathing, you have sleep apnea. Consult a sleep clinic and get it cured before it kills you or your marriage. It kills 10,000 people a year on the highways and thousands more in the cardiovascular wards. On the other hand, it helps you sleep through the opera or ball games your Significant Other drags you to.

If this superficial summary doesn't help (or you fell asleep reading it), get a whole book on sleeping better. It will help you sleep whether you read it in bed, place it and a few other books under the head of your bed, have someone hit you over the head with it, read it in a warm bath, or actually use its ideas.

Sleep tight ... and don't let the hundreds of millions of dust mites in your sheets bother you.



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