College students may always boast with a laugh about the "all-nighters" they've pulled. But going short of sleep on a persistent basis is no laughing matter. It can cause daytime fatigue, lack of concentration and depression, impairing your function during the day and increasing your risk of accidental injury or death.
"If you don't get enough sleep, to take just one example, you run the risk of falling asleep while driving," says Mangala A. Nadkarni, M.D., medical director of The Center for Sleep Disorders at Saint Barnabas Medical Center.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommend that we all sleep 7 to 8 hours a night. If you're sleeping less than that, you need to try changing your routine. And if you still feel tired during the day no matter how many hours you sleep, consider being evaluated for a possible sleep disorder, Dr. Nadkarni advises.
Here are two common disorders:
Sleep apnea, characterized by shallow, infrequent or interrupted breathing during sleep, affects 1 in 5 Americans. Besides disrupting sleep and breathing, sleep apnea disrupts oxygen flow, which can lead to an irregular heart rate, heart attack, stroke or memory problems, Dr. Nadkarni says.
You could have sleep apnea and not know it, the doctor warns. Tell your physician if you snore, wake up with headaches, feel exhausted throughout the day or wake up more tired than you were at bedtime. Other conditions potentially associated with sleep apnea include high blood pressure, poor control of diabetes and dementia.
Sleep apnea is treatable. Usually the patient must wear a mask nightly to promote "continuous positive airway pressure" (CPAP). This prevents interruptions in breathing and improves sleep—and it's easier to get used to than you may think.
Delayed sleep-phase syndrome is also common. Dr. Nadkarni explains that sleep-inducing melatonin and other chemicals circulate in our bodies at different times to regulate sleep patterns. If these chemicals are off-rhythm, she adds, you will be awake or asleep at the wrong times, and the phases change with age. This explains why some students stay up late and sleep until noon, while fifty-some-things often can't seem to stay awake past 8:30 p.m.
Often, Dr. Nadkarni says, the pattern can be adjusted with an over-the-counter melatonin supplement at night, or exposure to bright light in the morning to suppress melatonin so that it works as it should. Ask your doctor about these treatments.
5 steps that beat sheep-counting
Having trouble getting to sleep at night? Mangala A. Nadkarni, M.D., medical director at The Center for Sleep Disorders at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, offers tips:
Use the bedroom just for sleeping, not for work or recreation.
Shut off your tablet or smartphone at night, as these emit sleep-disrupting "blue light." If you must use these devices after dark, install screen-darkening software such as flux.
Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m.
Avoid alcohol at night, as this can cause awakening overnight.
Don't eat a large meal just before bedtime. This can cause gastric reflux.
Sleep problems? Help is available
The staff at The Center for Sleep Disorders at Saint Barnabas Medical Center treats a range of sleep disorders, from sleep apnea, narcolepsy, insomnia and restless leg syndrome to night terrors and sleepwalking.
If you need to stay overnight for observation, the center has bedrooms furnished with all the comforts of home, so you'll rest comfortably during the evaluation. Call the center at 973.322.9800 for an appointment.
To find out more about the treatment of sleep disorders at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, please call 973.322.9800 or visit barnabashealth.org/sbmc.