Monday Medical: Sleep a precious commodity

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I have been sleeping alone the past two weeks. I still love my husband, but I'd rather not catch his cold or be kept awake by his frequent coughing spells. When it's a toss-up between getting a good night's sleep and being polite, sleep wins every time.

The importance of sufficient sleep is being emphasized this week and next with local and national events. The timing of National Sleep Awareness Week marks the return of Daylight Saving Time in the wee hours of April 3.

Many people find it difficult to adjust to the one-hour change in the spring and again in the fall. For some, however, lack of sleep is a year-round challenge.

Sleep is essential for good health, safety and optimum functioning at home, work or play. Bill Moore, registered respiratory therapist and director of respiratory care services at Yampa Valley Medical Center, said lack of sleep can affect mood, behavior, work performance and ability to drive.

"People aren't always aware of the dangerous consequences that can result from lack of sleep," Moore said. "Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders are estimated to cost Americans more than $100 billion annually in lost productivity, sick leave and medical expenses."

Sleep-deprived drivers can be lethal on the road. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates drowsy driving causes at least 100,000 crashes and 1,500 deaths in the United States annually.

Undiagnosed sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), restless legs syndrome and narcolepsy all can cause sleep deprivation. Many of these problems can be treated, but they first must be diagnosed.

Moore recommends that people be aware of six key symptoms that can signal inadequate sleep:

Dozing off while reading, watching television or sitting in meetings

Slowed thinking and reacting

Difficulty listening to what is said or understanding directions

Frequent errors or mistakes

Depression or negative mood

Impatience or being quick to anger

OSA, a potentially life-threatening condition, has an additional set of symptoms, including weight gain, personality changes, high blood pressure, night sweats, pounding or irregularly beating heart during the night, morning headaches and loss of sex drive.

"Sleep disorders are still not well-recognized, but they can interfere a great deal with our lifestyle and our health," Moore said. "We know that sleep apnea is underdiagnosed in Steamboat Springs," Moore said.

OSA commonly is associated with snoring. It involves repeated brief interruptions of sleep during which a person momentarily is unable to breathe. This condition seriously disrupts sleep and creates sudden drops in blood oxygen levels that may strain the cardiovascular system. About half of people who have sleep apnea eventually develop hypertension.

Sleep disorders are easily diagnosed and treated. For accuracy and effective treatment, Moore recommends that people get sleep studies at the altitude where they live. Respiratory therapists at Yampa Valley Medical Center's Sleep Study Center have diagnosed more than 200 cases of OSA in its three years of existence.

Cheating on our sleep -- or being cheated out of sufficient sleep by a medical condition -- can affect our daily lives. The National Sleep Foundation urges adults to get seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Just as we are what we eat, we are how we sleep.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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