10 Questions for Your Sleep Doctor

Publication: Worth magazine

Sleep disorders affect more than 60 million Americans, and we’re sleeping 20 percent less than we did a quarter-century ago. How much sleep do we need and how can we get it?

1. Most of the day, I’m sitting behind a desk—how much sleep do I really need? Sorry, desk jockeys: “You still need good sleep no matter what you do during the day. Your body has a biological need for sleep that is based on how long you have been awake,” says Dr. Bryce Mander of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. He recommends seven to nine hours for most adults.

2. I don’t sleep much at night, but I nap frequently. Will that work? While sporadic catnaps can help in the short term, they’re not a healthy longterm option. “It’s best to get a good amount of ‘anchor sleep’ at night,” says Dr. Mander.

3. I’ve read that sleep boosts memory. True? Absolutely. Dr. Elizabeth Kensinger, an associate professor of psychology at Boston College, notes that “sleep can help to improve our memory across a range of domains,” including motor skills, new knowledge retention and creativity.

4. I take sleeping pills. Should I worry about getting hooked? Nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic prescription pills (Ambien, Lunesta) are not physically addictive; benzodiazepine hypnotics (Ativan, Restoril) can be. And both types “can cause users to form a dependence on them, which is sometimes just as bad as an addiction,” notes Dr. David Volpi, director of the Manhattan Snoring and Sleep Center.

5. What about so-called “natural sleeping aids” —effective or placebos at best? These remedies shouldn’t be taken casually. Melatonin is a hormone your body uses to organize its biological rhythms. “The amount in your system at any given time matters, and messing with it may not be a good thing,” says Dr. Mander. As for valerian, Dr. Michael Breus, author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, notes that while the root “does cause a relaxation response in humans,” it isn’t regulated by the FDA.

6. What’s the best way to prevent jet lag? Preventing jet lag entirely is virtually impossible, especially if you’re flying eastward or over multiple time zones. Your best bet, says Dr. Mander, “is to slowly shift your sleep schedule—an hour per night, for example—to the time zone you will be going to before you leave.” If you can’t do that, try to build in time to adjust at the arrival end of your flight.

7. What should I look for in a mattress? When it comes to choosing a mattress, look to Goldilocks: Too firm and you’ll be constantly tossing and turning, too soft and you’re at risk of developing back pain.

8. Does losing weight help you sleep better? “Not only that, but a good night’s sleep may help you lose weight,” says Dr. Kensinger. When you don’t get enough sleep, your brain produces more ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and less leptin, the “satiety” hormone.

9. I exercise at night, but it keeps me up. Any advice? Exercise stimulates the heart, brain and muscles, which fends off sleep. For those of you who must hit the gym at night, Dr. Mander suggests doing something relaxing right before bedtime.

10. I’ve recently been diagnosed with mild sleep apnea, but I don’t want to undergo surgery. Can you recommend a noninvasive treatment? If you have obstructive sleep apnea, CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines, oral appliances and tongue retention devices can keep the airway open. A certain type of CPAP machine may help patients suffering from the rarer central sleep apnea as well. And if you’re overweight, “weight loss is probably the best way to try to reduce sleep apnea,” says Dr. Volpi.

For more information, contact Dr. Elizabeth Kensinger, elizabeth.kensinger.1@bc.edu; Dr. Michael Breus, info@thesleepdoctor.com; Dr. Bryce Mander, bamander@berkeley.edu; Dr. David Volpi, info@nycsnoringsleepapneacenter.com or 212.873.6036.

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10 Questions for Your Sleep Doctor