You eat right, work out and have reined in your bad habits. Still, you run out of energy by mid-afternoon. If that’s your story, you may be guilty of the most overlooked, unhealthy practice in America — getting too little sleep. People who function on less than seven to eight hours of sleep each night are making life more difficult than it needs to be, said Dr. Jonathan O’Neil, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at Rockford Health System.

You eat right, work out and have reined in your bad habits. Still, you run out of energy by mid-afternoon.

If that’s your story, you may be guilty of the most overlooked, unhealthy practice in America — getting too little sleep.

People who function on less than seven to eight hours of sleep each night are making life more difficult than it needs to be, said Dr. Jonathan O’Neil, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at Rockford Health System.

“Sleeping serves a vital function in our overall health,” O’Neil said. “It’s important for memory, cognition and performance of tasks.”

Still, said O’Neil, “in our society, sleep is thought of as a necessary evil.”

Not to Patricia Nolan, who sought O’Neil’s help when insomnia disrupted her sleep for weeks at a time.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I’d stay awake all night. I tried (over-the-counter) sleeping pills and still couldn’t get to sleep. And if I did, it wasn’t a good, sound sleep.”

Nolan has always liked to be out and about, particularly in activities at True Vine Baptist Church in Rockford. She forced herself to continue with a normal schedule but, “To be honest with you, I would go somewhere and be sitting up and start nodding off,” she said.

“I wasn’t in the best of moods. I felt drowsy; I always needed rest. And one thing leads to another. My blood pressure and diabetes got worse.”

After a year of on-again, off-again sleep problems, Nolan talked to her doctor, who referred her to O’Neil. He discovered that she had obstructive sleep apnea, or interrupted breathing while asleep. He prescribed a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure device and therapy. Each night, Nolan puts on a mask attached to a small machine which keeps air moving through her breathing passages at appropriate levels.

That, plus losing 25 pounds this year, have revived Nolan’s life. A retired Warner-Lambert employee, she rediscovered the joy of waking up refreshed.

“Just being able to sleep takes the pressure off your mind of wondering what’s wrong,” she said. “Now I’m moving around and doing something all the time, and I’m in a better mood about getting up and going somewhere.”

More women affected

Perhaps because of the multiple roles many women fill — mothers, workers, wives, housekeepers, community volunteers, etc. — women have more sleep problems than men do. After a day of trying to fulfill all their responsibilities, women too often fall into bed, too late, still carrying the stresses of the day.

Insomnia is the most common sleep problem in women. Short-term, it’s not a big deal. Pregnancy, menstrual cycles, menopause or daytime problems can produce temporary insomnia.

Stress plays a big role, O’Neil said. Insomnia sufferers report they can’t turn their minds down at bedtime. Racing thoughts persist and impair their ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. Insomnia feeds the stress, and it becomes a vicious circle.

Restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea, often with snoring, are other common causes of sleeplessness.

Women should be aware that sleep often becomes a bigger problem as they age. Hormone levels change from young adulthood through pregnancies to menopause and affect how easy it is to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Women who choose nighttime jobs so they can be home with children during the day are asking a lot of their bodies, O’Neil said.

“If you work five nights and then shift back to a day schedule on the weekend, your body doesn’t know when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to stay awake,” he said. “The best way to sleep well is to have good sleep hygiene, which includes being consistent and going to bed and getting up at about the same time each day.”

Treatment options

Doctors usually can help sleepless patients, often without complicated treatment.

His first recommendation might be consistent sleeping times, a dark and quiet bedroom without TV, cooler temperature in the bedroom, and staying away from caffeine and naps during the day.

He also might instruct patients in techniques for progressive muscle relaxation or positive visual imagery, or suggest they try white noise or the hum of a fan as they sleep.

People who have restless leg syndrome might get relief from a warm bath or massage before bed.

O’Neil seldom turns to drugs when stress is the culprit.

“We try to find the underlying cause of the insomnia or stress,” he said. “It might be bereavement for a limited time, or a work- or family-related problem.” Sometimes he sends patients to mental health professionals to work on stress issues.

Drugs are available for disorders that don’t get better with improved sleep hygiene and cognitive behavioral therapies. Usually, said O’Neil, they are long-term solutions but not addictive.

What ‘good sleep’ means

The goal for everyone who sees O’Neil is a perfect night of sleep for that person. O’Neil said that means falling asleep in 30 minutes or less, waking up no more than once or twice, and falling back asleep quickly if that happens. As you sleep, you’ll move through dream cycles (which last longer as the night goes on), your temperature will change (cooling down as sleep begins and rising as you begin to rouse), hormones will fluctuate (important for growth in children and reproductive health in women) and your sleep will range from light to deep sleep patterns.

For most of us, that takes seven-and-a-half to eight hours of sleep each night, said O’Neil. He admits to getting about an hour less than that (although he would prefer to get more). He can handle that because, like most young people, his body can cope with lack of sleep more easily than people over 50.

A few people can function just fine on as little as four to five hours of sleep nightly, while some may need as much as 10 to 12 hours of sleep all their lives, O’Neil said.

If O’Neil could get a message to society about sleep, it would be that sleep is not a luxury to be “caught up on” during vacations. In our 21st-century, fast-paced lifestyle, we need sleep more than ever and may be getting less than ever.

“We are pushed more by the bottom line than quality of life,” said O’Neil, whether that bottom line is a busy social life, working too hard and long, or asking too much from yourself in regard to family. “I wish we could get American society to simply pay more attention to sleep.”

Rockford Register Star