Sleepless in Columbia…what it means for your health

Man sleepingAs director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at HCGH, I am thrilled to know that so many people in Howard County care about their sleep and want to do something about it. I always tell my patients that sleep is not a luxury item – it is a minimum requirement. Sleep deprivation experiments with mice have shown that even if they get everything else they need, without sleep they will die! So sleep is an absolute must for life, and healthy sleep is essential for a healthy life.

Anyone who has suffered from insomnia or other sleep disorders knows that getting a good night’s sleep is not always easy. And when we don’t sleep well for long periods of time, the results can be devastating: high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, cardiac problems, weight gain, daytime drowsiness that can lead to accidents, depression and even sudden death.

So…what keeps us from getting good sleep and what can we do to help us sleep like babies again? To get on the path to healthy sleep, there are some basic things we need to understand.

How sleep works

The drive for sleep is extremely powerful – even greater than the need to eat and drink. You have to consciously act to eat and drink, but deprived of sleep for long enough, you WILL sleep, whether you want to or not. The average needed amount of sleep is 7 ½ to 8 hours per day, and that average usually remains the same throughout your life. If you don’t get enough, eventually you’ll have to repay your sleep debt.

There are two kinds of sleep – REM (rapid eye movement or dreaming sleep) and non-REM, and during a sleep session we should cycle four to five times between these two types of sleep.

How you fall asleep

As the day goes on, our need for sleep builds up naturally. Our circadian rhythm, however, keeps us awake and dips at certain times of the day. Our circadian rhythm is influenced by light and darkness. Light in the morning helps us stay awake and darkness at night helps us sleep. So maybe it’s a better idea to put on those sunglasses in the afternoon rather than on the way to work in the morning.  Keep your environment bright and well lit early in the day, and lower the lights as the evening progresses. A dim night light in the bathroom is better than turning the light on full blast during the night, because that light can affect your sleep.

Unplug at night!

We’re addicted to our devices and they can adversely affect our sleep. Laptops, iPads and cell phones that are pinging and blinking and lighting up in the bedroom during the night are bad, and the blue light they emit is especially deleterious to sleep. Watching TV in the bedroom can also be too stimulating and make it hard to fall asleep. So unplug and read a good book instead. Remember! Only three things should happen in bed: sleep, sickness and sex.

What about naps?

We have a normal physiological desire for sleep between 1 and 4 p.m. Is it ok to take a nap? If it doesn’t affect your sleep at night, go for it. But giving into a nap after dinner can affect your circadian rhythm and make it hard for you to sleep through the night. Studies show that when we break the normal sleep pattern we won’t have good sleep at night.

Sleep is a safety issue

Many disasters and accidents occur during these dips in our circadian rhythm and these rhythms may differ through age. For example, among the young, car crashes are more frequent at night; for middle age, in the afternoon and night; for age 60-65, in the morning; and over 65, in the late afternoon. The highest-risk populations for sleep-related accidents are shift workers, medical residents, truck drivers and people who work hard and play hard without getting enough sleep.

Because sleep is extremely important for not only our own health and safety but also for the wellbeing of our families and community, we shouldn’t take sleep problems lightly. Remember that the first step in resolving a sleep disorder is admitting that it exists and taking positive action to get the good sleep we need.

For information or to schedule an appointment, call 1-800-WESLEEP (1-800-937-5337) or visit

Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital.