The Universal Notebook: No sleep until springtime
This winter a lot of people, myself included, seem to be having trouble sleeping.
It’s been years since I had a problem falling asleep. In fact, just the opposite has been the case in recent years. But for a month or more I have been tossing and turning at night, wrestling with the bed clothes, kicking the dog out of bed and annoying my lovely wife Carolyn.
At first I thought it was just me, but then I started hearing from family and friends that they too had been having sleep problems. Close to one-third of Americans have diagnosable sleep disorders, so I guess it isn’t anything unusual, but I’ve been hearing from people who ordinarily don’t have problems that they suddenly can’t sleep. So I called the Maine Sleep Institute to ask if they had seen a spike in sleep disturbances.
Dr. George Bokinsky, the medical director of the Maine Sleep Institute, told me he had not seen a marked increase in sleep problems this winter, though there are seasonal variations in sleep and wake.
“Problems with sleep do tend to increase in the darker months and decrease in the brighter months,” Dr. Bokinsky said.
My own initial diagnosis of the problem was that atmospheric conditions had something to do with my restlessness at bedtime. My mind races, my legs twitch and I’m either too hot, too cold or too irritable to get to sleep. I drift in and out of consciousness, usually obsessing about something irrational, just worrying some word, phrase or image for no apparent reason.
From what I read, it’s fairly well established that people have trouble sleeping on nights when the moon is full, something about disruption of our circadian rhythms. Apparently the suprachiasmatic nucleus near the optic nerve is affected and fails to produce sufficient sleep-inducing melatonin or something. Sounds plausible.
But I was noticing the fidgeting and inability to relax on nights when there was no moon at all. So maybe, I reasoned, it had something to do with solar flares and the aurora borealis. During the recent cold snap, we kept hearing about the polar vortex shifting southward, so maybe the Earth’s magnetic field is shifting and disrupting our sleep patterns. If so, lack of sleep will be the least of our troubles.
Then I stopped thinking globally and started blaming the lousy weather itself. I can’t remember a more miserable winter than we have been having. Snow and cold is fine, but no one has any use for sleet, slush, drizzle and freezing rain, especially when the temperatures dip below zero. Just remaining an upright citizen has been a challenge this winter. It got so bad at one point that I confess I strapped on some geriatric spiked treads just to keep from breaking my neck on my way down the driveway to fetch the morning paper.
For a little while I was convinced that the wave of winter sleeplessness we are experiencing was simply the result of the treacherous footing, which makes exercising difficult. I even came up with what I called the Hibernal Equation: lack of sun + lack of heat + lack of footing + lack of exercise = lack of sleep. But then, bears hibernate all winter and I see jog-aholics sloshing through the slush and pussyfooting over the ice, so that just doesn’t add up.
Now these recent 45-degree January days have me thinking spring two months early. My current thesis is that these sleep woes are simply the result of a combination of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, and the predictable post-holiday Big Letdown Until the Equinox; that's right, BLUE.
Come March 20 and the vernal equinox, if I’m still not getting a good night’s sleep, I may just give Dr. Bokinsky another call.