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W. Gifford-Jones

Advice provided in this column is the opinion of the author; for comments: info@docgiff.com.

Do you have trouble getting to sleep? Are you counting sheep and getting nowhere? Today, for many people a good night’s sleep is an elusive dream. Now, a report from The Harvard Medical School says that anxiety and stress often cause insomnia. And it’s refreshing to read that its solution doesn’t involve doctors or drugs.

A prolonged lack of sleep can have devastating consequences. For instance, the huge oil spill by the Exon Valdez and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster were both believed to be related to sleep deprivation.

But chronic insomnia can be life-threatening in other ways. Dr. William Dement, a renowned sleep researcher at Stanford University in California, says there’s compelling evidence that how well and how long we sleep is an important indicator of how long we live!

So, is there a magic number for the hours of sleep we need to keep healthy?

An English proverb claims, “Six hours for a man, seven for a woman and eight for a fool.” But according to the National Sleep Foundation, whichever you are, eight hours is required for good health and safety. But only one-third of us get this amount.

Insomnia is no friend to those who have pre-diabetes. Researchers at the University of Chicago studied a group of young men who were restricted to four hours of sleep a night. This caused a decrease in the secretion of insulin, a 40 percent decrease in the rate sugar was cleared from the blood and an increase in blood sugar. If the study had continued, the end result would have eventually been diabetes.

Professor Mathew Walker at the University of California says, “sleep loss is one of the greatest public health challenges we face in the 21 st century.” For instance, long distance truck drivers have a 200 to 500 percent greater risk of accident. And when a truck driver is killed, he or she takes 4.5 other people with them.

Another study at the University of California showed that men deprived of one night of partial sleep resulted in an immune system that was less effective. They found that “natural killer cells” which fight viral infections and cancer were compromised.

So how can Harvard doctors cure insomnia without drugs? I admit I expected them to pass along a great new scientific achievement. So I was shocked to hear that these professors believe that weighted blankets may be the answer for those who stare at the ceiling and count sheep all night.

Dr. Christina Cusin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at The Harvard Medical School, reports, “weighted blankets have been around for a long time to treat children with autism or behavioral disturbances.”

She adds, “It’s one of the sensory tools commonly used in psychiatric units.

“Patients who are in distress may choose different types of sensory activities, such as holding a cold object, smelling different aromas, doing arts and crafts to try to calm down.

“But weighted blankets are supposed to work in the same way. Tight swaddling helps newborns feel snug and secure so they dose off more quickly. The blanket simulates a comforting hug, calming the nervous system.”

These blankets look like regular ones. But they’re filled with plastic beads or pellets to make them heavier and can weigh from three to upwards of twenty pounds.

If you believe a weighted blanket might be the answer to insomnia, buy one that weighs 10 percent of your own weight. So someone weighing 150 pounds needs a blanket weighing 15 pounds.

But do they work? Dr. Cusin says it’s impossible to do a scientific double-blind study as all subjects would automatically know the blanket is heavier.

Luckily, she says there’s little risk to these blankets, but to check with your doctor before using one, particularly if for small children. And be ready to pay about $100 to $200 dollars to cuddle up in it.

I hope it gives happy dreams. As F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author, remarked, “The worst thing in the world is trying to sleep and not to.”

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