No Doze: One Woman's Five-Year Struggle with Sleep

Donna Plotzker, 55, usually starts trying to fall asleep around 10:30 p.m. Too often, though, the Chicago interior designer doesn’t succeed until sometime between 5 and 7 a.m.—right about the time she needs to get up.

“I’m so conscious of the fact that there’s a good chance that I’m not going to fall asleep,” she says. “You kind of obsess a little bit about it, which makes it even harder.”

She’s tried her personal equivalent of counting sheep. “I decorate in my head. I move furniture around,” she says. “I design solutions best when I’m lying in bed trying to sleep.”

But while that may help her business, it doesn’t help her sleep. Often she ends up watching TV until after midnight. If she’s still awake then, she gets up, goes to the bathroom, walks around her house, checks email, looks at Facebook for a half hour or so--then gets back into bed. If that doesn’t work, she repeats the routine again until she finally dozes off.

It’s a struggle Plotzker has been dealing with for more than five years now. In her quest to get more shut-eye, she has tried chamomile tea, incense, over-the-counter medications, acupuncture, even different pillows. She’s even tried Elixir of Dreams, a spray “mist” for her pillow. The valerian in it supposedly “calms and comforts” while the lavendar “soothes and relaxes.” But nothing seems to work for long.

Plotzker’s hardly the only American struggling with slumber. More than 60 million suffer from sleep problems, including insomnia. The National Institutes of Health and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend that sufferers first try to improve their “sleep hygiene”—a.k.a their habits. Their advice: Follow a set schedule, avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed, exercise (but not directly before bed), wake with the sun and keep the bedroom quiet, dark and a bit cool. Plotzker’s been trying to implement all those changes.

She started watching her caffeine intake, especially later in the day. In the morning, she allows herself a cup or two of coffee. She loves iced tea but she won’t let herself drink it after 5 or 6 p.m. And she monitors the temperature in her Chicago home. She keeps the thermostat at 68 degrees and either cracks the window or puts on the ceiling fan to keep her room cool.

When those efforts fail, she’ll occasionally try using sleeping pills--though sparingly. She’s found the quality of her sleep is different. “It’s really hard to get out of the grog,” she says. “You’re not alert. What I find is I’ll wake up but my body is still asleep.” And she worries the pills may prevent her from dreaming. “As a designer, much of my creativity comes to me in my dreams, and I am not willing to give that up,” she says. Still, she’ll take half-a-tablet of a popular sleep aid, prescribed by a psychiatrist, if she is extremely tired.

Initially, she thought she might have sleep apnea--pauses in breathing while she slumbered. (More than 12 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, which can be caused by the brain failing to signal the muscles to breathe or from the collapse of soft tissue in the back of the throat that obstructs the airway.) But her doctor tested her and ruled it out. She’s opted not to spend more time and money on a sleep specialist, especially because her doctors think her problems are related to menopause—so they may be temporary.

For many whose sleep problems last for more than a few months, though, specialists can help. “There’s no reason to continue to suffer,” says neurologist Jean Matheson, a sleep disorders specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “Sleep doctors are very available now.” (The American Academy of Sleep Medicine lists accredited sleep centers on its web site.)

A specialist takes a detailed sleep history to figure out why someone is suffering from sleeplessness—which is a symptom, rather than a disorder itself. Sometimes, as in Plotzker’s case, the problem can be related to menopause. That makes her hopeful that—even if she struggles to sleep now—her problems should end when menopause does.

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