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January 2011: How to Fix Your Sleep Habits

Investigating the consequences of sleep loss and how to correct it.

When the alarm goes off at 5am, Katie K’s (last name withheld) day begins. She has to get her three kids up and ready for school and daycare and get herself ready for a full day of work as a nurse manager in Albany. She burns the midnight oil most nights studying for her graduate degree. Sleep comes at a minimum for Katie, so on weekends she does her best to catch up. This is just a snapshot of America’s sleep pattern. According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 20 percent of Americans report that they get less than six hours of sleep on average.

Consequences of sleep loss

“I think that the reality is that we need seven to eight hours of sleep,” said Vickie Tower director of the Seton Health Sleep Lab in Troy. “If you sleep for eight hours, you should feel refreshed and good. The whole science behind it is it gives the body a chance to refresh and relax.”

Studying sleep patterns and treating sleep disorders is a priority to Tower. A pulmonary nurse for 28 years, she helped establish the Sleep Lab on the sixth floor of St. Mary’s Hospital, in Troy in 2003. Up to four people can be accommodated at once for an overnight sleep study. Patients rely on the lab to diagnose and treat a range of sleep disorders such as insomnia, snoring, narcolepsy, restless leg disorder and sleep apnea. The tests have shown that a lack of sleep can lead to major health problems.

“Obstructive sleep apnea can lead to heart attack, stroke, depression, relationship problems. The list goes on,” she said.

Sleep habits/holistic solutions

There may not always be a clinical diagnosis for sleep problems. According to Tower, sometimes the busy lives we lead can affect how we sleep, and our almost 24/7 attachment to technology (i.e., television, cell phones, computers and PDA’s) is not helping. “The one thing that people do is they have TV’s in their bedroom and lie in bed and watch TV. As much as we love TV, it supports inactivity.”

Dr. Joseph Olejak from the Delmar Wellness Center agrees. “Studies show that you should not look at PDA’s or screens because the bright screen has an effect on the pituitary gland, which controls the day/night sleep cycle.”

He specializes in holistic healing and has suggestions other than hitting the pharmacy with a prescription for a sleep aid.

“Avoid reading or doing any work in bed.”

If you’re working and reading you get into a pattern in which your body connects the bed with work. He also recommends sleeping in complete darkness. “Curtains drawn, no bright digital clocks.”

Finding the right mattress

Weather you suffer from a sleep disorder or not, not sleeping enough and not sleeping well is not acceptable to most people. Take Katie for instance: she has a packed schedule from morning until night and yearns for the moment she can put her head back on her pillow and melt into her mattress. If you get eight hours of sleep a night, as most doctors and health experts recommend, you will spend a third of your life sleeping, so it must be worth spending some of your awake time finding the right mattress, if there is such a thing.

“A bad mattress will make you wake up with aches and pains, but I don’t think it has anything to do with your sleep pattern,” said Tower.

Dave Mooradian of Mooradians Furniture in Albany has a different opinion.

“I’d believe that five percent of the time. Ninety-five percent of the time I don’t agree. I have to believe that with so many different kinds [of mattresses] available to people, there has to be a difference if you have the right one.”

Mooradian said the hottest seller right now is the Tempur-Pedic. “Part of the reason is because of infomercials, and it’s also partly because so many people have them.”

Count Katie as one of those. She sums up her feelings for it, simply. “I love it.”

Even though it’s one of the priciest mattresses on the market, it’s still popular with buyers. “For two-thousand dollars, if someone didn’t like it, they’re going to tell you,” said Mooradian, who has yet to hear from an unhappy Tempur-Pedic customer.

Tempur-Pedic is a five to six inch foam block, with memory foam on top of it. The company claims its’ mattresses don’t have to be flipped, rotated or turned and even offers a 20-year-warranty to back up that claim. There are plenty of other less expensive sleep options, but how do you decipher between a sales pitch about what’s and personal preference?

Mattress myths

According to Consumer Reports, when shopping for a mattress there are common myths that you will hear. Here are a few:

  1. Firmer is better. If it’s not comfortable to you, firmer is not better.
  2. Coil count is critical. As long as a mattress has a coil count above 390 in a queen-size mattress that should be plenty.
  3. A higher price guarantees a better bed. As long as it’s not the cheapest mattress in the showroom, it should be fine.
  4. You must include a box spring to save the warranty. It’s not always required. Check with the store or company. You can likely keep your old box spring if it’s in good shape.
  5. A mattress should be used until it sags. Physical changes can make a mattress less comfortable long before it wears out.

If the mattress doesn’t do the trick, maybe counting sheep will send you to sleep. While that suggestion certainly has no clinical guarantee it may be a wake-up call to make a physical change.

“Sometimes, like everything else, it takes making a lifetime change like diet and exercise. We have to make it a priority,” said Tower.

A priority that Katie recognizes every morning at 5am.


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