How Sleep Doctors Can Change The Way You Snooze

Vitamin ZZZs

by Tamim Alnuweiri

There are many things people prepare themselves for when they come to New York—the rats, the garbage, the subway delays. What people tend to forget is that New York's nickname of “the city that never sleeps” doesn't just refer to the fact that this town knows how to party. Sure, the moniker promises that New Yorkers will always be able to find something that’s open at 3am and somewhere to be no matter the hour, but it’s also a warning about, well, the fact that it can be really hard to sleep here. The thing is, until you come to New York, fatigue is just a barely known concept. It takes being woken up every night at 2am by the feral cat cage match on your fire escape—and then again at 4am by blaring sirens and/or the chaotic rumble of a garbage truck making its rounds—for you to really understand what fatigue is.

But while those are just specific to New York, having trouble sleeping is definitely not city-specific. As our world becomes more digitally and technologically integrated, a good night's sleep has become increasingly more difficult to achieve, due in no small part to our rampant use of electronics and devoted pre-bed screen time.

I’m not sure if it’s the aftermath of living in New York for so long, or if it’s related to the recent personal trauma of watching The Machinist, but I’ve recently become obsessed with the idea of learning to sleep better. Which has led me to the maybe ridiculous seeming question: How do you actually get better at sleeping? While practicing (napping) is a great pastime and hobby for which I heavily advocate, I felt like it was only making things worse. But what did I know? And where should I find answers? This is where a sleep doctor comes in.

Sleep doctors, in a nutshell, are specialists that deal with all things regarding sleep, sleep disorders, and sleep conditions. Whether you have an actual medical disorder (sleep apnea, insomnia, chronic nightmares, sleepwalking) or if you’d like to simply improve the way you currently sleep, these specialists can help you achieve a new rested state. 

To get a better grasp on sleep medicine, I spoke to Dr. Janet Kennedy, a sleep specialist with her own private practice in New York, who offers treatment plans, seminars, and classes. Dr. Kennedy described sleep medicine as being “multidisciplinary and [including] specialties in pulmonology [respiratory tract], ENT [ear, nose, throat], psychiatry, neurology, and psychology. Medical doctors treat the physical causes and symptoms of sleep disorders. Psychologists and other therapists treat the psychological and behavioral causes of sleep problems.” Most people initially come to Dr. Kennedy because of “some form of insomnia—either difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. I help people learn how to sleep naturally and reduce or eliminate their reliance on sleep medication.” 

My first course of action was to figure out if it there was a real medical reason that I’m virtually unable to operate before 10am. I always felt weird just saying that I wasn't a morning person because it always sounded like a weak excuse for, well, laziness. As it turns out, though, there are people who are just not good in the morning. This was good news! According to Dr. Kennedy:

There are biological reasons that some people feel better in the morning and others feel more alert at night. However, there are a lot of psychological and behavioral factors that can influence a person's alertness at different times of the day. Practicing good sleep hygiene—which includes getting up at the same time every day, limiting alcohol, unplugging from screens one hour before bed, restricting caffeine to early in the day, and setting up a bedtime routine—will help a person determine whether their behavior is affecting how she or he feels in the morning or whether they are simply not a morning person.

Basically, it might be your lifestyle, or it might be a real biological condition (I am going with the latter). 

Also according to Dr. Kennedy, there are two types of sleep disorders, physical and psychological, and if you have or suspect you might have any sleep disorders of other difficulties sleeping, then you may want to find a specialist especially since “sleep deprivation has serious consequences for a person's health and safety.” Depending on what your specific issue is, there is a different corresponding type of sleep specialist—a pulmonologist or an ENT for snoring and other breathing issues, a psychologist or psychotherapist for insomnia and night terrors. Accordingly, treatment will differ too and can include anything from psychotherapy to medication. But if you're worried about taking pills, many sleep therapists use methods like Cognitive Behavior Therapy to address the underlying issues causing the sleep problems in the first place. Sleep specialists will also help you understand yourself, your sleeping cycles, and what your ideal bedtime and sleep routine looks like. 

Before going to a sleep doctor, though, there are some widely agreed on basic steps that can help you sleep, all of which are worth trying to see if they make an immediate improvement. Things like no technology or screens an hour before sleeping, sticking to a routine, and staying away from caffeine in the afternoon are all demonstrated to help. Utilize online resources if you’re having some trouble, but are not ready to commit to a trip to the doctor. I'm partial to Dr. Michael Breus' website, which is full of valuable and helpful introductory tips and information, a bedtime calculator, product recommendations, and more. However, if sleep (or a lack of it) has become debilitating or obscenely difficult, consider consulting a specialist to help you get your ZZZs.