Women may not be ripping up their pillows in frustration like our cover model, but research of all kinds shows that while men may have a lead in sleep-disordered breathing, women may ultimately be the ones who are sleeping worse. Pregnancy, caring for children, hormonal changes, and, let us not forget, bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan combine to put women at higher risk for a host of sleep problems. Luckily, today, many disorders, such as insomnia, restless legs syndrome, and sleep apnea, can be controlled with lifestyle changes plus medical treatment.
Therefore, when I became pregnant last year, I was eager to see what my physician would tell me about sleep and how to improve it. After all, pregnant women suffer many sleep disorders, and my OB/GYN knew that I was the editor of a magazine for sleep medicine professionals. I figured that she would at least say something to me about the importance of healthy sleep. I was sadly disappointed. No health care professional I interacted with through my entire pregnancy and postpartum period made a point to ask about my sleep or offer suggestions for getting a healthy amount of rest each day.
Perhaps, I thought, they assume Sleep Review’s editor already knows about sleep, so I asked around among my friends who also were new moms. Nope, the situation was the same for them. We had all been asked about our diets and exercise, screened for postpartum depression, and offered copious help with breastfeeding. However, when it came to sleep, which is so important for both the mother and baby, the topic clearly was considered unimportant.
Sleep medicine has come a long way in the past 30 years, but it still has quite a way to go. I find it terribly frustrating that many physicians outside of sleep medicine still do not get the message about the importance of sleep, or, if they do, do not know how to incorporate that information into how they treat their patients.
The efforts of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to introduce more sleep disorder education in medical schools is wonderful, but could more be done? Practical continuing education about sleep medicine for physicians in other specialties still seems to be lacking. The pharmaceutical industry is, of course, pushing its message that many sleep disorders can now be treated, but physicians need to learn about more than just the latest drug developments.
The National Sleep Foundation’s latest Sleep in America Poll, which Theresa Shumard reports on in this issue, revealed that women—and particularly those in the postpartum period—struggle to get a healthy amount of restful sleep. As a new mom, this comes as no surprise to me, but it is shocking that so many physicians just take sleep deprivation in new parents for granted when there are simple things they could tell their patients to drastically improve their sleep and thereby their health.
Researchers are only beginning to understand how and why we sleep, but the connections between sleep disorders and other better-understood conditions are fascinating. Given what is already known about sleep deprivation’s effect on the human body, I would not be surprised if someday sleep health is given a higher priority as a key part of preventive medicine.
I just hope that, when my daughter, Madeleine, is grown and has her own first baby, her physician will spend as much time talking to her about healthy sleep as about diet, exercise, and breastfeeding.