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Sleep in America: Why we are tired and what to do about it

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Jeffrey Martinez couldn't remember a time when he’d slept so peacefully, when morning felt so good.

For most of his adult life, he’d had trouble sleeping. He typically had to drag himself out of bed in the morning and felt tired and irritated throughout the day.

“I tossed and turned all night,” he said recently.

He was so sleepless four years ago, Martinez, goaded by his girlfriend, checked into the Center for Sleep Disorders at Gwinnett Medical Center in Duluth.

One night in one of its four bedroom suites, he said, changed his life. These days the 51-year-old Statham plumber sleeps like a baby.

According to a poll conducted last year by the National Sleep Foundation, a significant number of Americans say they aren't getting the sleep they need.

The poll found that 43 percent of Americans between the ages of 13 and 64 said they rarely or never get a good night's sleep on weeknights. Sixty percent said they experience a sleep problem -- snoring, waking in the night, waking too early -- every night or almost every night.

Because scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and academic researchers have observed that poor sleep is strongly linked with traffic deaths, obesity, chronic diseases and teen risk behaviors, improving sleep health could help impact the agency's battles with those issues, said Anne G. Wheaton, an epidemiologist in the CDC Division of Population Health.

“The consequences of insufficient sleep extend past just feeling a little sleepy during the day,” Wheaton said. “In recent years, insufficient sleep has been linked to the development of various chronic conditions including hypertension, diabetes, obesity and depression.”

Wheaton said that compared to adults who get seven to nine hours of sleep daily, those who report getting less than seven hours are more likely to report difficulties with basic daily activities such as remembering, concentrating or with work performance.

Before coming to the sleep center in the summer of 2008, Martinez said he felt tired even before the day began and it only got worse as the day progressed.

He didn’t feel refreshed in the morning and was irritable and easily agitated. When he finally crashed at night, if he wasn't snoring, he was up drinking water for his dry throat.

Finally, his girlfriend suggested he go to the sleep center for help.

“You really scare me,” she told him. “You’re not breathing.”

On July 14, 2008, he finally heeded her advice and at 7:30 that night, checked himself into the sleep lab. After a brief orientation, he settled into his modestly furnished suite, where a monitor concealed in the ceiling allowed nurses to study him sleeping.

A technician hooked 18 different cables to his head, cheeks, chest and legs to monitor his breathing, oxygen levels and brain activity throughout the night. Martinez settled in to watch baseball. The Tempur-Pedic mattress felt good but he wondered how he’d sleep with so many wires attached.

At 9 p.m., the room went black. It was time to sleep.

Sherry Niebeling, a registered respiratory therapist and coordinator of the center, said patients are required to sleep a minimum of six hours in order to get a thorough analysis.

Data collected is scored and then interpreted by a board-certified sleep physician, she said. The study typically takes one night with results available in about a week.

Martinez fell into a deep sleep but the monitor showed he was struggling. In one hour he’d stopped breathing 48 times. His oxygen level dipped to 72 percent. A normal reading is in the high 90s.

Nurses fitted him with a continuous positive airway pressure machine or CPAP that would provide air and help him breath.

“I felt like a dog with a muzzle on my face but once I got used to it, I slept through the night,” Martinez remembered.

At 6 a.m., a voiced piped into the room announced, “Jeffrey, it’s time to get up now.”

“It was like God speaking to you,” he recalled.

Martinez got up, took a quick shower, dressed and headed to work. “I noticed a significant difference almost immediately,” he said. “I felt so much better.”

Each year, more than 600 patients seek help for their sleep problem at the Center for Sleep Disorders at Gwinnett Medical Center, said Dr. Gregory Mauldin, the facility's medical director.

“We expect that number to increase,” he said. “We believe many people have delayed getting treatment because of the recession.”

Why are so many people struggling to get a good night’s sleep? Mauldin blames increased shift work, 24-hour access to technology and increased incidence of sleep apnea due to obesity.

“Quality, adequate sleep is necessary to maintain overall good health,” Mauldin said. “There is no substitute. Help is readily available for those who need assistance.”

Mauldin said that most adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep a day. Less than that, fatigue is interfering with your well-being and it’s time to seek help, he said.

Wheaton said that for many people, sleep simply doesn’t rank high on their list of priorities. As a result, they don’t make time to get the sleep they need or they may do things such as drinking stimulants before bedtime that make it hard to sleep.

The most common sleep disorders are chronic insomnia, restless leg syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs when breathing is briefly interrupted during sleep, usually when the muscles at the back of throat flatten.

Mauldin ultimately diagnosed Martinez with sleep apnea.

His treatment? The CPAP machine.

“I get a good eight hours now,” he said. “I sleep continuously through the night and my energy level is much better during the day.”