Sleep

Could insomnia be responsible for my recent weight gain?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I've been suffering from insomnia for the past year or so. I've also gained 15 pounds over the same time period. Could the two be connected?

DEAR READER: I spoke about this with my colleague Dr. Stuart Quan, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. He confirmed that there is growing evidence of a link between obesity and insufficient sleep. The growth of this country's obesity epidemic over the past 40 years, for example, correlates with a decline in the amount of sleep reported by the average adult. And in large population-based studies, obesity has been linked to less sleep.

How can I help my teen to get more sleep?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My teenage daughter stays up late, then has a hard time waking up for school. I don't think she's getting enough sleep. What can I do to help her fall asleep at a reasonable time?

DEAR READER: Not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences. This is especially true for children and adolescents, whose developing brains are very sensitive to insufficient sleep. Teens need as much sleep as do adults, maybe more. They need eight to 10 hours for optimal function, but studies have found that few get this much sleep.

How will losing weight help me sleep better?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm overweight. My doctor told me, among other things, that losing weight would help me sleep better. What's the connection?

DEAR READER: It's true. Losing weight, especially in your belly, improves the quality of sleep if you are overweight or obese.

I have chronic pain that interferes with my sleep. What can I do?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have chronic pain from arthritis. Lately it's so bad that I can't get a good night's sleep. What can I do?

DEAR READER: Chronic pain and insomnia are, unfortunately, a common combination. What's more, chronic pain puts you in double jeopardy: First the pain robs you of restful sleep, then losing restorative sleep makes you more fatigued, which makes you more sensitive to pain.

Do shift workers have an increased risk for health problems

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm a nurse, and I can be assigned to work the day shift, evening shift or night shift. I hear that shift workers can develop health problems. What is known about that?

DEAR READER: More than 9 million people in the United States are shift workers like you. Studies show that nearly 10 percent of night-shift workers have severe reactions to that schedule. Some become overwhelmingly sleepy during the night shift, when they need to be alert. Some have trouble concentrating and focusing on a task. Others can't really fall deeply asleep during the day, when they need to get some sleep.

How much sleep do I need?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I average about six hours of sleep each night. How much is enough, and how much do most people get?

DEAR READER: Let's start with how much is enough. Many large studies have found that people who average fewer than seven hours of sleep per night, or more than nine hours, have more health problems. That is, there is an association between "too little" or "too much" sleep and health problems.

Could magnesium supplements help me fall asleep?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have trouble falling asleep and melatonin has not worked. I want to avoid medications, and I have read that magnesium supplements can help. Should I try them?

DEAR READER: Magnesium is important for many biological functions, including nerve and muscle function. It may have a role as a preventive treatment for migraine headaches. But there is not strong scientific evidence for its use with insomnia.

How can I tell if my complaints are a consequence of aging or an actual problem?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Every time I complain about a new medical issue, my husband says, "You're 84. What do you expect?" How do I know if my complaints are just a consequence of aging or if there's an actual problem?

DEAR READER: I'm not 84, but I ask myself that question regularly. You don't have to be a doctor to understand that new symptoms develop as we age. But some changes aren't a normal part of the aging process. I'll discuss some common age-related health changes, as well as changes that suggest there might be a problem.

Is it dangerous to sleep too much?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I've heard a lot about the harmful effects of insufficient sleep. But are there any dangers of sleeping too much?

DEAR READER: Over the years we've learned that sleep is important for a variety of reasons. It appears to be vital for forming long-term memories. It also helps you to digest what you have learned the previous day. Sleep promotes concentration and restores energy; it helps to keep your immune system functioning well and to regulate eating patterns.