Sleeping like a baby. There's a reason it's a common...

Sleeping like a baby. There's a reason it's a common phrase. Now there are doctors and therapies to help those who don't have restful sleep find it. (Undated) Credit: iStock

Shortly after returning from Saudi Arabia in 2001, Marc Branker realized he had a serious health problem. "I would sleep eight or nine hours a night and wake up dead-tired," he recalled. "I fell asleep at meetings -- not good, especially when you're in the military."

For years, Branker had dealt with difficult work schedules as a logistics manager in the Air National Guard. As part of his job, he often flew into different time zones with little time to adjust his sleep schedule. In his previous job as an audio engineer for WNBC/4 news, his schedule also was "all over the clock," so he was used to erratic sleep patterns.

This time, however, things seemed different, said Branker. So he consulted Dr. Michael Weinstein, director of the Sleep Disorders Center of the Winthrop Wellness Pavilion in Garden City.

Branker, now 50, of Mastic, was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, a severe form of the disorder prevalent in men over 40. It's characterized by repeated pauses in breathing while sleeping, resulting in poor sleep.

Branker was given a medical device known as a CPAP (see-pap), which consists of a light mask worn over the nose (and sometimes mouth) during sleep. Attached is a small pump that gently pushes air into the throat and nose, keeping air passages open.

"It's been fantastic," says Branker, who retired from the Guard and now drives a limousine. "I have much more energy now."Like Branker, an estimated 70 million people suffer from sleep problems that can affect their health, say researchers at the National Institutes of Health. Sleep-related problems tend to increase among older adults, experts say. And women approaching menopause often complain of poor sleep, which can be related to hormonal changes, Weinstein says.

Sleep disorders, such as apnea, can be linked to other medical conditions, particularly obesity, says Dr. Hardly Greenberg, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at North Shore Long Island Jewish Health Care System.

Whatever the cause, experts say the consequences can be dire. Sleeping problems are sometimes associated with conditions such as heart and lung diseases, diabetes and strokes. In addition, a 2006 report, "Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem," by the nonprofit Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., noted that almost 20 percent of all serious car crash injuries are associated with driver sleepiness.

Still, many sleep issues remain undiagnosed until patients are desperate, says Al Murray, vice president of United Sleep Diagnostics Inc. in Garden City Park. Some are encouraged by spouses to sign up for sleep evaluations because of sleep-disruptive snoring.

Earlier this year, Laura and Kevin Coleman of Merrick went to Sleep Diagnostics. Laura, 50, a schoolteacher, had been sleeping badly, suffering from severe jaw pain, despite a night guard she wore to help her stop clenching her teeth.

Meanwhile, Kevin, 53, services coordinator for the inpatient chemical dependency detoxification program at Nassau University Medical Center, had been feeling fatigued. "I get maybe five or six hours' sleep [a night] so I thought, 'That's what happens when you don't get enough sleep,' " he says.

Together, they took part in an overnight sleep study at the clinic, which has hotel-like bedrooms with bathrooms and flat-screen TVs. Before going to sleep, patients are hooked up with about 20 electrodes to measure blood pressure, breathing patterns and heart rate. "I just put on the Yankees game and slept like a baby," Kevin recalled.

In an adjacent room, Laura never did fall asleep. So, she returned another night, and the technicians recorded an episode of sleep apnea. She has decided to try using a better night mouth guard.

Kevin was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea and will be fitted for a CPAP machine. "If I end up rested," he says, "it will be a godsend."

For some patients who can't adjust to the CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure), there's a custom-fitted oral device made by dentists who specialize in sleep disorders. They "act like a splint" to keep airways open, says Dr. Don A. Pantino, an Islip-based dentist and past president of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine.

In some cases where insomnia is stress-related, simple nonmedical techniques may help. For instance, when Donata Stern, of Roslyn can't get to sleep because her mind "keeps racing with distracting thoughts," she uses a tip from a friend.

"I get into a comfortable sleeping position, close my eyes and start counting backward from 100," says Stern, 80, a painter, who also swims and plays tennis. "I visualize each number as I count - even in color. If I am not asleep after the first 100, I start again. It may take a while, but it always works."

Tips for getting a good night's sleep


Common-sense changes in daily habits may help alleviate sleep problems. Here are some tips for improving "sleep hygiene," according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine:

1. Establish a regular, relaxing routine to unwind.

2. Don't drink alcohol or coffee close to bedtime. Alcohol may help you get to sleep, but it depresses breathing and can lead to restless sleep.

3. Avoid daytime naps.

4. Avoid late-night TV shows -- many are aimed to keep you awake.

5. Try aerobic exercise at least a few hours before going to bed. As your body temperature cools from exercise, you usually get sleepy.

6. Don't have a big meal before bedtime. Allow at least a couple of hours for digestion.

7. Avoid bright lights before bed, including computer screens, which tend to stimulate the brain.

8. Avoid sleeping pills, which may depress breathing, relax throat muscles and make sleep apnea worse.

9. Sleep on your side or your stomach. On your back, gravity can work against you, allowing your tongue to constrict your upper airway.

10. If you're stressed, don't try to force yourself to sleep. Get up and write down everything that's on your mind. It may help to ease anxiety by having your thoughts on paper and not in your head.

11. If you are overweight, weight loss may be a key part of treatment, improving breathing and a more restful sleep, says Dr. Michael D. Weinstein of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Winthrop University Hospital.

12. Consult a doctor if you get more than seven hours of sleep and still wake up tired, says Dr. Harly Greenberg of the Sleep Disorders Center at North Shore Long Island Jewish Health Care System.

13. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine provides a list of facilities that specialize in diagnosing and treating sleep disorders (

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