Ask Dr. Sleep

Dear Dr. Sleep:

Help! For years I’ve been able to hide my sleep problems, but now, with children who have to be carpooled, and get to school on time, I am faced with solving my sleep dilemmas. I believe I have two sleep issues.

Issue 1:
I can’t wake up in the morning and I’m up all night. When I first wake-up, I’m like a zombie. I’m so foggy that I’ve taken showers with my slippers still on my feet. As a child, my mother hand-fed me until I was in high school. (If my mother did not feed me, I’d sit at the table, awake, but in a non-thinking, vegetative state.)

While in college, I was in a dorm and one person was assigned wake-up everyone else. I would leave notes to the designated person not to believe anything I said that morning, i.e. “my class was cancelled,” to assure that they would wake me up.

I would often lie to my friends even in my sleep. I knew I was lying, but when awakened, a part of my brain took over that wasn’t rational. All I could hope to do was find the human alarm clock and try to explain my situation the night before. Hopefully, this person
would be persistent in nudging me dozens of times. Everyone hated waking me up; many times I still missed classes.

I can sleep through anything. In a sorority, I was chosen to sleep in the single bedroom. My roommates loved this because they could have parties, and I was totally unaware. Once asleep, I was dead to the world. I once told a college professor that I couldn’t make a class because I had a sleep disorder (little did I know).

When I was in the MGM hotel fire that started at 7:15 a.m., my brother hired an investigator to find me, as everyone knew, I’d still be sleeping. Fortunately, I decided, late the night before, to go to a business meeting. When working, I’d set multiple alarm clocks around my room, thinking that at least one of them should wake me up. I’d still oversleep, getting up each time to turn off the alarm and go back into bed. For important meetings, I asked my Mother to call; oftentimes, even that didn’t work. I’d talk (somewhat aware) and fall back asleep.

While I can’t get up in the morning, I have no difficulty staying up until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. My usual bedtime is 1:30 a.m. I’d like to go to bed earlier, but I can’t. It’s like some force that keeps me up, outside of my control. My husband claims that I can control this sleep issue, if I only tried. It’s not for lack of trying, or thinking, or wanting; I just can’t do it.

I’ve always been able to hide my sleep problems, but as my children get older, I’m faced with solving them. I can’t get up in the morning to get them ready/off to school. They are often late for class and it’s hard to explain that “their Mother is the problem.” They blame me, even though, I claim to have a “sleep disorder.” I’ve missed carpools, and I’m embarrassed to tell the various moms why this occurs. I’m currently working at-home, so I don’t need excuses for employers. One day, soon, this will be an issue.

As a kid, I used to claim that I could fall asleep anywhere, at any time. I used to take bets. Falling asleep was never an issue, except at night.

Issue 2:
Certain foods make me suddenly fall asleep. After eating carbohydrates, and some corn-derived ingredients, I fall fast asleep. I may sleep for ½ hour or 4 hours. I have almost no control. If I’m driving, I can conjure up enough energy to wait until I get home to nosedive on the couch. On a few rare instances, I have pulled to the side of the road to deal with my sleep attack. When this need to sleep attacks my body, it’s like a wave or force that takes over my entire being, and whoosh… I’m sleeping. These foods also cause migraines, urticaria, joint pains, facial twitching, and a host of other complaints. Oftentimes I can avoid the “bad foods,” but sometimes, any food will just sneak-up and cause sleepiness.

This food “thing” became apparent, about 10 years ago, after giving birth to my second child. (By the way, this child is highly allergic to eggs & nuts.)

You may say, “avoid” the things that make you sleepy. But, that’s like saying, “don’t eat.” And, one day a food may affect me, and another day, it may not. Help!

Here are some examples of food-induced sleep:

I bought Chinese food for my daughter, stole her fortune cookie, and ate the cookie while in the parking lot of her pediatrician. While waiting in the reception room, I fell asleep. This “eat to sleep” time was 15 minutes.

I had to pick-up my daughter up at school at 4:00 p.m. It was 2:00 p.m., and I was feeling fine. I ate two bites of a store bought brownie, and within a ½ hour, I found myself laying down, and awoke at 4:30 p.m. When I awoke, I didn’t know where I was (in my living room), what day it was (Sunday, or Monday), and what I had to do next…until it hit me that I was supposed to be at school a half hour ago!

I can wake up feeling fine (a good day for me), have a bowl of granola, read the newspaper, and find myself weak in the bones and mind. I don’t want to go to sleep, but if I don’t, I just don’t think I can go on. It’s like “something” takes over and the need for sleep is so great that it overwhelms all other body/brain systems. Again, I awake at 1:00 p.m., finding most of my productive day, gone. It’s extremely frustrating. I don’t like it, I don’t want to be like this, but I can’t change it. And, no one gets it.

Or, I’m at a party and I have 15 potato chips, and my need to sleep is overwhelming. I get light headed, my head starts bobbing up and down, and my eyes seem to be moving all around. I just can’t stay up. I join the kids, in another room to hide, and ½ hour later, the hostess wakes me up to be sure I’m O.K. My husband is embarrassed, and I don’t know what to say. How can I explain this?

What do I do? In fact, its 2:30 p.m., and after 2 low-fat ice cream bars (2 Weight Watcher points), I’m fighting sleep. I have to pick-up the carpool at 3:15 p.m.; I can’t miss it. This is tough. My eyes want to close. I’m yawning 1,2,3…can’t stop. Going to go outside and get some fresh air to ward off the sleep attack…until the next one.

A patient that needs a solution…fast!

Dear Help,
Thank you for your letter, eloquently describing the condition known as hypersomnia. Strangely enough, hypersomnia (as opposed to sleepiness) is as frequent asinsomnia but less well known. About 20% of Americans are chronically sleep deprived and have excessive daytime sleepiness. In your case, the cause is probably more complicated. After labor and delivery sleep/wake (circadian) rhythms are often unstable, delayed and even reversed. What it means is that your sleep shifts and appears in the socially inappropriate times.

In addition, people with this disorder become over sensitive to the natural sleep inducers such as carbohydrates. Many people have problems similar to yours that begin at an early age. The good news is that sleep medicine professionals now know a lot more about hypersomnia and circadian rhythm disorders. Treatment is available.

If attempts to eliminate sleep inducing food and sleep hygiene techniques do not help, then a diagnostic work up is necessary. This means a sleep study to rule out medical problems such as periodic limb movements during sleep, breathing or heart irregularities, which are known to cause awakenings and daytime sleepiness. A new generation of safe medications is available to increase vigilance and alertness. Natural remedies such as melatonin and light therapy are also very helpful.

The most important message is: “Do not cover up or hide this problem. Talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist. There is no need to suffer.”
Good Luck to you.

Dr. Sleep