Dreaming Of Sleep

Couples find that snoring and the restlessness of insomnia can create unhappy bedfellows

March 11, 2007|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Reporter

FEELING A LITTLE GROGGY this morning and blaming the switch to daylight-saving time? Maybe you ought to look at the person on the other side of the bed instead.

Americans aren't sleeping well. About 70 million of us have problems sleeping, according to the National Institutes of Health. In spite of our dual-control beds covered in high thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, Breathe Right nasal strips to eliminate snoring and, of course, the magic Lunesta butterfly and other potent sleeping aids, we still aren't getting our recommended z's.

What's even worse, our bed partners are often to blame. Dr. John Shepard, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has coined the tongue-in-cheek phrase "spousal arousal syndrome" to describe the phenomenon, but it's no laughing matter to those losing an average of an hour's sleep a night when they share a bed with a snorer -- which is what Shepard's research showed.

Think of it as collateral damage, as one scientific paper called it. Sleep problems can lead to a lack of intimacy (sexual and otherwise), resentment, marital discord (no one likes to be told he or she snores) and irritability throughout the day.

"There's an enormous amount of medical literature written on sleep problems," says psychologist Paul Rosenblatt, the author of Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed-Sharing. "But it's written as though we all sleep alone."

Meet Alise and Doug Brzezinski, who live in Canton. The Brzezinskis are a thoroughly modern couple: They both have sleep issues.

A former professional football player, Doug, 31, suffers from sleep apnea, which means he stops breathing for several seconds while he sleeps unless he wears a device that gently forces air through the nasal passages.

His wife, Alise, also 31, has her own sleep problems.

When she's working as a systems analyst (she's looking for a job now), she has bad bouts of insomnia during periods of high stress. She lies in bed with her brain buzzing until early morning, when she may finally fall asleep for an hour or two.

"You get very tired, very edgy," she says. "You get upset at insignificant things. It definitely affects how you treat your spouse."

Stress, the Internet, late-night TV, our round-the-clock lifestyle, the fact that we're getting fatter and grayer as a nation -- all have been blamed for our increasing inability to lie down, shut our eyes and wake up the next morning rested and alert.

Many sleep experts think people do best if they get, yes, a full eight hours. You don't realize how good you'll feel until you try it, they say -- and most of us haven't. At the turn of the 20th century (we know from diary entries), more than eight hours of sleep a night was the norm. Now it's less than seven, says Dr. Brian Bohner, medical director of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center's sleep center and a private practice specialist in sleep medicine.

Over the past decade, the percent of Americans getting eight hours of sleep has dropped lower and lower, according to Christopher Drake, a senior scientist at the Henry Ford Hospital Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit. In 2005, it was 26 percent, down from 35 percent in 1998.

"It's the pervasiveness of our 24-hour cycle and shift work," he says.

A couple of years ago, the National Sleep Foundation published a poll of 1,056 adults that, among other things, looked at how sleep problems can cause relationships to suffer. (Each year the nonprofit organization produces a Sleep in America report during National Sleep Awareness Week, the week culminating in the switch to daylight-saving time.)

The survey results correlated closely with other scientific research, says Drake, who was on the poll task force.

The Sleep in America poll found, among other things:

Nearly a quarter of those surveyed who had bed partners said they had sex less often or had lost interest because they were too sleepy.

"Healthy sex can promote healthy sleep," says GBMC's Bohner, but if you're exhausted, "sleep is at the top of the list and sex drops way down."

Two-thirds said their partner snored.

One-third of adults with partners said they had relationship problems as a result of the other person's sleep disturbances.

Three in 10 took measures such as sleeping in another room or on the couch (23 percent) to keep from being disturbed.

Even though it's sometimes the best solution, sleeping in separate bedrooms can lead to a lack of intimacy. It's not just that couples are less likely to have sex if they sleep apart, says Rosenblatt. It's that they're less likely to talk.

For roughly half the people he interviewed for his book, their time in bed was the most time they spend together.

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