November 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm EDT | by Kevin M. Norris
Tossing and turning

Getting a good night's sleep sometimes requires medical intervention. (Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection via the Library of Congress)

For longer than I can remember, I never really slept well. The last year and a half I have been particularly noticing sleep issues and the profound side effects of sleep deprivation. I didn’t fully realize the effects of sleep deprivation until I sought medical assistance and read extensively on the subject. I hope my story puts you to sleep as well.

A column last year on insomnia focused on remedies but the effects of sleep deprivation are also worth covering.

There were many nights that I had trouble falling asleep — my brain would often race uncontrollably and I felt “wired.” And if and when I finally fell asleep, I would wake up just about every hour. After several hours of this, I would get up in fatigue and frustration usually in the middle of the night.

I often woke up with aches and pains throughout my body, frequent headaches and overall fatigue. But I lived with this reality for some time thinking it would get better. I found myself falling asleep in meetings, not having the energy to work out and crashing most afternoons. I was also relying on caffeine quite a bit — a quadruple skim cappuccino was my afternoon mainstay to get me through the rest of the day.

I also had difficulty focusing, reading and remembering simple things such as someone’s age or recent events and conversations. My motor skills felt off as well and I frequently lost coordination — not good for a personal trainer. And I knew my brain chemistry was awry and was affecting my moods and emotions because I was an emotional rollercoaster.

After trying just about every sleep remedy you can imagine, from chamomile tea, meditation, melatonin and prescription medication to lighting candles, dimming lights and warm milk, I had exhausted the gamut of remedies — nothing seemed to work. Finally, I sought out a sleep specialist at George Washington Hospital and a standard sleep study was ordered.

The sleep study has been interesting and the knowledge I have gained about the effects of sleep deprivation have made me feel less crazy. I was relieved that I had a diagnosis because I feared I would be told there was nothing wrong and that I really was losing my mind. But I came to realize that sleep deprivation is a valid and major medical problem that requires medical treatment.

I have now been under the care of a sleep specialist for about four months. My first sleep study was about three months ago and it was discovered that I snored and had severe sleep apnea, an obstructive airways disorder that causes abnormal pauses in breathing or instances of abnormally low breathing. As a result, I stopped breathing on average 30 times per hour, which caused me to wake up frequently gasping for air. The doctor also told me that sleep apnea is hereditary but that both it and insomnia can be treated.

The first course of action was a new medication for me — Trazadone, an old-school anti-depressant that has sleep-inducing qualities and is purported to be non-addictive. And I was scheduled for a second sleep study so that I could be fitted with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine (CPAP). A CPAP machine uses mild air pressure to keep airways open. This is the conservative approach; the alternative is surgery. I do know a few people who’ve had the surgery and swore by the results, but I am not ready to get invasive just yet.

Getting a good night's sleep sometimes requires medical intervention. (Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection via the Library of Congress)

I finally got my CPAP machine on Oct. 12 and I am currently prescribed both Ambien and Trazadone per my doctor’s recommendation. Thankfully, I’m beginning to sleep better than ever before. And while admittedly, the CPAP machine is quite cumbersome and takes some getting used to, it’s far better than not sleeping. I’ve been wearing the CPAP through the night since the first night and I even use it while napping. I eventually hope to eliminate the medications.

If I only knew then what I know now, I certainly could have been far better off and suffered less. I believe I was both ignorant and in denial and my self-will was telling me I could handle this and snap out of it. My free-will often runs amuck and it certainly did in this case.

Everyone seems to know about my sleep issues because I share them frequently and people would notice because I looked tired all the time — they could see the exhaustion in my face. Through my frequent sharing I uncovered the wide-spread truth that insomnia and sleep deprivation is actually quite common and from what I can tell, most people grin and bear it or dismiss it and don’t seek medical assistance. That’s the biggest mistake I made for so long.

So today my life is profoundly different and I am awake at the wheel. I wake up refreshed and rejuvenated. I am much more focused, have great energy, beginning to work out again and accomplishing more in my life. Sleep deprivation virtually stagnated my life and all that has changed for the better.

So if you are suffering from insomnia and sleep deprivation, my best advice is to seek medical attention because it could treat your problem. There are about 15 centers in the D.C. area that address these issues. Isn’t it time you got some sleep?

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