How I Overcame Chronic Sleep Deprivation

Why a sleep machine became my best friend

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” That cliché was my mantra for years. My residency in emergency medicine, with its rotating day and night shifts, did not help. Nor did the days of 36 to 40 consecutive hours of work and wakefulness during those three years.

This evolved into years of entrepreneurial and school-induced sleep deprivation. Looking back, I was chronically sleep-deprived for probably more than 25 years.

While living through it, I really had no idea that four to five hours of sleep per night had such a harmful and insidious effect. And I didn’t believe I was sleep deprived.

In fact, I would argue vehemently against it.

The Game Changer

A couple of years ago, I decided to undergo a sleep study because I was constantly tired throughout the day and I snored at night. After the study, I was diagnosed with moderate to severe sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that happens when soft tissue obstructs the airway, which causes breathing to stop and start throughout the night. In addition, the oxygen level of my blood dropped precipitously during these events to the point where I was hypoxic (low oxygen level).

Now, I use a CPAP machine, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure, every night. A CPAP machine applies constant air pressure throughout the night to keep someone’s airways open while they sleep. The machine has helped me sleep through the night and, more importantly, maintain a level of oxygen in my blood that is safe.

After getting diagnosed, I read the book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker and it was a game changer. Walker is the Director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab. His book explores sleep and how people can change their lives for the better by sleeping more.

As I read and researched the benefits of sleep, what became overtly clear to me is that the maxim “I’ll sleep when I am dead,” actually ensures you achieve the cliché. Now I can say I no longer live by that mantra.

Chronic sleep deprivation leads to some of the following health risks:

  • Increased risk of mental illness,
  • Exaggerated mood swings,
  • Reduced grey matter in the brain,
  • Increased heart and blood vessel disease,
  • Weight gain
  • Reduced testosterone levels.
  • In addition, sleep deprivation is a leading cause of car accidents.

Ultimately, not sleeping enough will shorten your lifespan. Keep in mind that in most cases you will experience multiple risks on this list.

Getting diagnosed with sleep apnea was a blessing. The CPAP machine helped me sleep better and from there I changed my routine so I could sleep longer.

I stick to a sleep schedule and go to bed around the same time every night and wake up around the same time every morning.

My schedule used to be all over the place, and it still can be depending on my shifts in the ED. However, I try to stick to a routine as much as possible. I usually go to bed around 9 p.m. and wake up at 4:45 a.m. This gets me just under eight hours of sleep, which is a huge shift from my previous four to five hours.

I also completely cut out caffeine, which was a big change. Over the years, I drank Diet Coke, then Diet Mountain Dew and then a variety of coffee drinks. One day I decided I had enough and quit cold turkey. I had a mild headache for a day or so and that was it. I have not touched caffeine since.

After quitting I slept better and did not feel like I “had to have a cup of caffeine” to start my day nor did I “have to” stop in the morning and waste money on coffee.

When it comes to cutting out caffeine, everyone is different. I was lucky that my headache went away pretty fast. If completely cutting out all caffeinated beverages at the same time is not for you, then slowly taper off. Do what feels right for you and your body.

Over the years I’ve counseled many patients attempting to cut caffeine from their diets. Some are able to quit with little work, others take months to completely kick the habit. The important thing is to keep trying.

Another part of getting a good night’s rest and helping wake up is exercise. Exercise gets the endorphins going and will help energize you.

I exercise early in the morning. I wake up early, go for a run and lift weights. Exercise and moving help wake me up and get me energized for the day.

Now that I sleep between seven and eight hours a night, I am amazed at how much more energy I have, how alert I am and how my physical and mental performance has improved. My performance, mood and affect are literally night and day different.

Take it from somebody who was sleep deprived for decades, sleep is incredibly important. Anything you can do to improve the quality and duration of your sleep will add years to your life.