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In pursuit of sleep


Experts say stick to the basics

March 18, 1997
Web posted at: 9:59 p.m. EST (0259 GMT)

Editor's note: This story is part two of a week-long series on sleep deprivation's impact on society.

From Correspondent Dan Rutz

ATLANTA (CNN) -- In a society driven by high energy and expectations, little virtue is seen in insisting on a good night's rest.

And for millions, healthful sleep is just a dream.

Take Paul Latoures who, by most standards, has an unusual wake-up routine. He's up before dawn, sitting under intensely bright lamps. He gets up early to do this every day, in the hope of being able to sleep through the following night.

"I'm predisposed to being an insomniac," Latoures said. "Someone else may be biting their fingernails, or who knows what they'll be doing. But for me, I'm predisposed to not sleeping. Major tension, no sleep."

Dr. William Dement, a noted sleep authority at Stanford University, says getting good sleep is a matter of working with the biological clock.


"The biological clock is responsive to light at certain times," Dement said. "Bright light in the morning will tend to advance the clock. In other words, alertness will occur earlier and sleep will occur earlier."

His research helps people like Latoures shift their biorhythms so they won't wake up hours before they should.

"You lose a half an hour a night over the course of a month, and this will slowly pile up... As far as we know, all lost sleep accumulates as a debt."

There are better and worse ways of trying to clear up that debt.

Drugs to help you stay awake, may only buy more time. Strong medications such as methamphetamines, and what doctors call psycho-stimulants can be easily abused, and cause severe side effects.

Such effects include "inappropriate euphoria, anxiety, motor side effects, and worst of all, perhaps, is something called rebound hypersomnolent, meaning that when the drug wears off you have a drug crash," said Stanford's Dr. Dale Edgar.


"In other words, you have much more sleepiness than if there had been nothing at all."

Coffee and caffeine-based over-the-counter stimulants are safer, but Edgar's not keen on them as substitutes for sleep.

"There is considerable tolerance to these drugs," he said. "You end up having to take more and more and more over time."

As for that nightcap, it won't improve your sleep, Edgar warns.

"It'll help you get to sleep quick, but when the alcohol wears off in just a couple of hours, you'll have this rebound wakefulness right after the effect."

Instead of hitting the bottle, hit the mattress, advises Dr. James Wellman, of the Sleep Disorders Center of Georgia. And good sleep hygiene, as experts call it, requires the right equipment.


When shopping for a mattress, Wellman tells his patients to take a magazine to the store and spend an hour on the mattress they plan to buy.

"It's not one size fits all, and that's I think a very important point to make," Wellman said.

In general, whatever works is good, experts say. Among the dozens of sleep aids on the market, what may appear gimmicky to most could be a blessing for others.

"There is a tremendous demand for devices or something that will help people sleep better, because people are seeking as good a sleep as they can possibly get."

Wellman prescribes a cool room, at 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, as the ideal for sound sleep. But what's most important is to regard the bedroom as a bastion of solitude, never as an extension of the office, he said.

And just as we put in long hours in our effort to succeed on the career track, the experts say getting ahead on the health track also requires some overtime with closed eyelids.


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