MARCH IS NATIONAL SLEEP AWARENESS MONTH
[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]
Sometimes you can practice healthy sleep habits, but your ability to get good sleep may still be compromised by factors that are beyond your control.
In such cases, you may be experiencing something we call “second-hand sleep problems,” which happen to you as the result of other behaviors or elements of one's environment.
If you suffer from sleep loss due to these kinds of external problems, you may discover yourself facing an ongoing problem with sleep deprivation. Chronic sleep deprivation creates the perfect conditions for a host of problems to set in, from high blood pressure and a higher risk for car accidents to mood disorders, insulin resistance, and obesity.
What are second-hand sleep problems?
There are two key ways in which our sleep can suffer even when we do everything in our power to make sleep a healthy process for ourselves: living with other people's sleep disorders and the presence of household distractions.
Other people’s sleep disorders
If you have a bed partner, family member, or roommate with a sleep disorder, then you’re probably already well aware of what their challenges are. Sometimes you might even be more aware of their sleep problems than they are. Sleep medicine professionals routinely hear how their patients were inspired to see a doctor because of complaints from loved ones.
The problem with not having a sleep disorder, but living with someone who does, comes when the person with sleep problems doesn’t treat it successfully. While nearly every sleep disorder is treatable, many people are unwilling to even acknowledge they have a problem with sleep, even when someone tells them otherwise. So they continue to struggle with sleep and those who live with them must endure the second-hand impact.
Here are some of the more common sleep problems and disorders experienced by other people which might be leading you to a life of sleep deprivation:
Nocturia: This describes a frequent need to use the bathroom at night. It typically indicates an underlying health issue that may or may not be a sleep disorder (such as untreated sleep apnea or diabetes).
Insomnia: When your loved one tosses and turns all night, the tension in the sleeping space, along with their body movement, sounds, and behaviors (Candy Crush on a smartphone, anyone?) can be a real sleep buster for those who normally sleep just fine.
Snoring: Recently, a woman in the UK was murdered by her roommate, who smothered her because of her snoring. This is never the right solution to any problem, but make no mistake: If your partner snores and keeps you up at night, you will eventually suffer from sleep deprivation. People who are sleep deprived are more likely to make bad judgments in their relationships, just like this roommate did.
Sleep apnea: If snoring isn’t bad enough, some people gasp and choke all night in their sleep, which is terrifying for bed partners to witness over and over again. The good news is that treating sleep apnea with some form of positive airway pressure (PAP) not only stops these dangerous pauses in breathing while asleep, but creates long periods of soft white noise or silence to help bed partners get the rest they need.
RBD, sleepwalking and other parasomnias: Those sleepers who are "on the go" usually have no idea they are literally talking, dancing, walking, jumping, cooking, or fending off adversaries… but the people they live with do. In fact, they may even be at risk for harm by simply being in the same space with certain super-active somnambulists, who may be enacting dream content that is violent.
Circadian rhythm disorders: These are the extreme night owls and early birds that keep to a sleep schedule that is far from the ordinary sleep times for most people. For instance, if your bed partner is going to bed, or rising, at 3am, that’s probably going to disrupt your sleep. Some people have such wonky sleep-wake schedules that it’s impossible to even know when they’ll be asleep or awake, and that uncertainty can impact a household as well.
Movement disorders: You feel a rhythmic movement in bed and realize that it’s your bed partner pointing and flexing their foot. Twenty beats on, twenty beats off, over and over. Sometimes the movement is so slight you find yourself listening or feeling for it, and that keeps you from falling back to sleep. But sometimes the movements are sudden and explosive, over and over. Meanwhile, your partner keeps on sleeping, completely oblivious to the way their activity is keeping you awake. Another sleep-stealing movement disorder: teeth grinding (bruxism), which can be extremely loud and hard to listen to.
Poor sleep hygiene: Perhaps the biggest troublemaker here is the handheld media device (smartphone, tablet, or game console). If you go to bed, but your bed mate’s electronics are still on, there will be blue light, noise, and physical movement to distract you from your own sleep. Other bad choices that keep people up include midnight snacks, alcoholic “nightcaps,” smoking at bedtime, and late-night exercise regimens. People who partake in these habits are going to struggle to either fall asleep or stay asleep, and if they’re sleeping with others in the same room, the second-hand effect will be noticeable to these roomies, too.
If you’re a person who has no sleep problems, but you sleep in the same space with someone who does, it’s well worth the effort to share these observations with them and ask that they seek a solution. It could be that they need to see a doctor or change some of their bedtime habits. If they refuse, you still need to find a way to get your sleep. Using eye masks or ear plugs is one solution; choosing to sleep in a different space is another.
A home can be a high-sensory environment, and there’s often no way to completely shut out all the distractions that could shortchange you some sleep. That's fine, life is full of temporary challenges that might interrupt sleep from time to time. It's the nightly distractions that can be cause for chronic sleep deprivation.
Here are some of the ways your household could be keeping you up at night.
Children: New babies, young children having nightmares, kids with disabilities, and teenagers are four categories of young people whose behaviors and care demands (even without intention) can lead to sleep deprivation among parents.
Pets: Let’s face it: We love our pets, but do they care about our sleep? Not so much. Large pets can create a lot of problems if they jump into bed with you (and they may even have their own sleep disorders!). Even small pets can be disruptive (notably, the cats who like to sleep on human faces). If you have an athletic hamster in a cage nearby, you can be sure it will commence wheel-spinning just when you need your room to be silent.
Elderly or disabled loved ones: It’s not uncommon to bring aging or disabled members of the family into the household when they’re not able to care for themselves independently. This is usually a good thing overall. But they might be bringing additional demands on your time and energy which could be disruptive to everyone's sleep (including theirs).
In example, sundowning, in particular, is a kind of circadian problem related to dementia, in which older family members may become agitated and disoriented just as the rest of the family is settling in for the evening.
The stress of caring for the disabled or senior family members with health concerns is real, and can inspire a need for additional assistance. Don't be afraid to ask for help. And if you’re a member of the Sandwich Generation, then you have two categories of loved ones whose demands could be stripping you of necessary sleep. Don't burn the candle at both ends, or you'll feel the wrath of sleep deprivation sooner rather than later.
Roommates: We’ve all heard stories of nightmare roommates who keep odd hours, walk or eat in their sleep, or do crazy things like bake at 2am when they can’t sleep. The problem is, when they can’t sleep, chances are you won’t be able to, either.
Household noises and lights: Electronic noises, squeaking floorboards or door hinges, dripping faucets, and chatty digital personal assistants can create a quiet uproar in one’s house. Insomnia can also be the product of too many bright LED light bulbs in the house, or nightlights using blue spectrum light, or even the passive power lights that gleam off of devices in your bedroom.
External noises and lights: LED lights used in streetlamps are becoming a known cause for sleep disorders in neighborhoods who switched to them to save money. Living in a city is almost a guarantee you won’t be able to blot out exterior light without an effort. So are traffic sounds, apartment residential noise, and emergency sirens. But then again, in the extreme quiet of a rural landscape, a motorcycle buzzing down the highway miles away, or the blaring of train whistles at crossings might also be problematic.
Sleeping away from home: Few among us sleep better in strange beds. Room temperatures, mysterious noises, unexpected ambient light, and uncomfortable mattresses and pillows can make sleeping away, even while on vacation, a challenge.
Check out these ideas for preventing second-hand sleep problems from ruining your sleep.
- Have loved ones seek help for their sleep problems. Not only will it make sleep better for you, but they will reap distinct health benefits from addressing their sleep disorders.
- Improve your sleeping space. Blackout blinds, soundproofing, clean sheets, supportive mattresses, fresh air, aromatherapy, the removal of clocks and devices are all fairly do-able ways to make your bedroom sleep friendly. Keep these options in mind when you travel, as well. Ear plugs and eye masks are affordable and easy to pack.
- Set household rules to preserve quality sleep time for everyone. This is especially for those among us who work night or overnight shifts. Our shift work means we’ll need to catch our Zzz at times when everyone else is awake. Some “Shhh” signs on the bedroom door can help, as can caregivers who can assist elderly loved ones or children while you sleep. Rules about the use of electronics (handheld devices, but also televisions and computers) prior to bedtime should also be defined and respected by everyone. And parents, take heed: your kids look to you first for examples to follow, so if you're bedtime habits are cringeworthy, you might be instilling them in your children as well.
- Train pets to sleep in their own beds (if you can). Even if this just means they sleep on the floor beside your bed, this can be a huge improvement. Otherwise, move nocturnally active animals to other rooms.
- Sleep in a separate space. There’s no shame in claiming a solo sleep space if you can. In fact, many people gravitate toward this option naturally, either because they have special sleep needs or they can’t convince their bed partners to make healthy changes. Being married to a snorer who refuses to fix their problem doesn't mean you still have to suffer.
- Share caregiving chores equally. If you’re caring for children, seniors, the disabled, or any combination of these, it makes sense to enlist the help of everyone in the household who is capable of providing caregiving support. As the saying goes, “many hands make light work.” One person should not bear all the brunt for these kinds of family challenges. If caregiving efforts are too demanding, consider alternatives so you can all get the rest you need.
- Rethink the family bed. Sharing one bed may be delightful at times, but disruptive at others. If your family bed situation is shorting you of the sleep you need, it’s time to have a family talk about how to get everyone to sleep in their own spaces.
- Ask for help from neighbors regarding invasive lights and noise. If neighbors are too noisy or use too many bright lights, you should approach them about your concerns. There are noise and light ordinances in many communities just for this reason: to preserve the quality of our living spaces.