LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates Weekly Message
Weekly Gems from Ronda Gates.

Restless Sleep

For many years I intermittently visited a doctor complaining of severe morning headaches. Most of the time they'd be relieved by a couple of Tylenol and my early morning exercise routine. But at least once a month they were so painful I thought my head was going to explode. When the requisite pain killer didn't work and the headache got worse someone would haul me to the ER where I'd beg for an injection to relieve the pain (or a gun so I could do myself in). That intake complaint is consistent with addicts needing a "fix" so I was appropriately forced to wait until I was evaluated and the doctor's were assured the best course of action was to knock me out. When I awakened I was functional again. Through the years I was evaluated for these headaches and, over and over again, a doctor would suggest it was 'stress" or encourage me to see a psychologist. I found the inability to diagnose me frustrating and the attempt to write it off to psychological problems a cop out.

Another symptom was concurrent with the headaches. I was always sleepy. I attributed it to my busy but enjoyable life and joked about it being leftover sleepiness from the years of sleepless nights when I cared for a chronically ill child and a husband who suffered from nocturnal jerking movements sometimes called "restless legs." When my career included volunteering for many professional associations I gained an embarrassing reputation as a napper because I often nodded off soon after the meeting began. They teased me about my short attention span, and accused me of having narcolepsy--sudden and unpredictable sleep attacks in the middle of the day. I ignored them.

Several years ago, a miracle occurred. I saw a t. v. program about sleep apnea (absence of breathing while asleep). I recognized the symptoms. I called my cousin, a respiratory physician who specializes in sleep disorders. He agreed my symptoms were a fit, suggested I lose weight (I was at the top of the fitness tree and had no weight to lose) and gave me the name of a nearby sleep disorder specialist. I was sent to a sleep laboratory where many electrodes were attached to my body to measure brain waves, heart rate and breathing patterns while I slept.

Sure enough, I had many periods during the night when I "stopped breathing" for at least ten seconds. Something made my respiratory muscles stop working temporarily which caused increased blood levels of carbon dioxide, which, in turn, stimulated my brain to signal a gasp for air. The problem occurred only when I was on my back, leading docs to believe I had a muscle flap or other flabby structure in my airway that blocked the flow of air.

More than 30 million people snore at night. About 2.5 million of those have sleep apnea. It's serious because in addition to keeping people from reaching deep, restful levels of sleep, severe sleep apnea can trigger a dangerous heartbeat, especially in people who are not fit and/or overfat (two significant risk factors for cardiac disease). Some people stop breathing and never start again.

As it turned out, I was lucky. I got relief from forty years of physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual suffering by learning to sleep on my side instead of my back (insert tennis balls inside rolled up towels placed against the backbone)! Occasionally I still awake wih a gasp, realize I'm on my back and sense a headache is imminent. I get proactive relief by jumping out of bed, plunging my feet into my athletic shoes and going for a walk at an intensity guaranteed to fill my brain with oxygen and purge the carbon dioxide from my blood. Others, not so lucky, require mechanical devices strapped over their face to assure airflow or, as a last resort, surgery. Although losing weight is the first recommendation for the underfit and overfat, it relieves but rarely eradicates the problem.

If you know someone with morning headaches, pass this newsletter to them. It's a gift of love.

Weekly Messages Lifestyles

LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates
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