Thursday, February 8, 2007

To Sleep, Perchance to Slim

There's more and more evidence building up over the link between lack of sleep and obesity. This report came out today, but there have been plenty more the past couple of years. Witness this, and this or this. Whether it's because people who don't sleep well are tired and always on the hunt for something to give them a quick energy boost--especially fast-acting simple carbs--well, that makes sense to me. Maybe it's more than that. I'd like to sleep on it. But I can't. Yep, sleep is not something that comes easily to me.

At the risk of putting someone to sleep (okay, pun intended), here's an article I wrote a couple of years ago about my experience spending the night in a sleep lab. The published version of it was called "Wired."


"I have insomnia," I told my doctor gravely, spilling details of sleepless nights dating back to roughly age 14. I envisioned magic pills that would render me asleep within 10 minutes of retiring for the evening.

Instead, I was sent to a local hospital for a night in a sleep clinic. I couldn't imagine being able to sleep, even though the sleep center literature assured me that most sleep study participants, removed from the distractions of their home environments, sleep very well. I thought of the great fondness my dogs have for the sound of their own voices echoing through the house at night, and considered it a possibility.

Two weeks later, I and my pillow arrived promptly at 8 p.m., wide awake. There were three others there for tests the same night and we fidgeted in the waiting room and made sleep jokes before being led to our rooms. Hospital rooms, of course, but with a higher "cozy" factory -- real beds, nightstands, lamps. I had scarcely turned on the TV before the sleep lab technician came in.

The pictures I had seen on a previous Google search simply did not do justice to the tangle of wires and electrodes going to my arms, legs, chest, neck, head, nose -- even eyelids. I felt like Medusa on a bad hair day. "You can lie down and we'll hook you up, then you can watch TV till you get ready to sleep," the technician said as he plugged the myriad tentacles into a large electronic box somewhere in the vicinity of my head.

"I don't sleep on my back," I said conversationally. He flipped a switch, illuminating lights on the electronic box. "I don't sleep on my -- is that a camera?" I had just spotted the video camera in the corner.

It was 9 p.m. The technician left me in my prison of tentacles, a TV remote control in my right hand. I couldn't see the TV from my position so there seemed no point in keeping it on. I turned it off and lay there.

"Are you going to sleep?" a voice boomed out from the ceiling. My first thought was of God, but figured if He were going to audibly speak to me from On High, He would have a more intelligent question to ask. "I'm going to try," I answered the disembodied voice, which now I had identified as coming from somewhere near the video camera. Its red eye, not really noticeable when the lights and TV were on, was now glowing like the red Eye of Sauron, the embodiment of evil, the robber of sleep, the invading Orc of dreams.

God was feeling chatty. "Could you blink your eyes for me?" he thundered from above. I blinked. "Could you move your right foot?" I thought about moving my left out of sheer rebellion but, fearing I would be cast out of the sleep center, did as I was asked. "Enjoy your sleep."

The silence was deafening -- bad novels always say that, but it's true. I went through a litany of all my teachers since first grade, their subjects, and what I thought of them. I recited all the teams in the NBA.

"It has been two hours and you are not sleeping," commented the Voice from Above. Then I heard it, soft at first, then louder. Snoring. The man next door to me was snoring. I was incensed, livid.

I did it; I turned over on my side, hardly breathing. I began a recitation of all the books I've read this year, of what I would give people for Christmas. I dozed off.

A flashlight shone in my startled eyes as the Disembodied Voice morphed into the lab tech, who said I had disconnected some wires during my 20 minutes of sleep -- I couldn't believe he woke me up. He reestablished the connections and then I was left alone again in darkness, awake.

At 5:30 a.m., the Voice said, "Would you just like to go ahead and leave?" Yes I would. I was surprised to learn that in the 8.5 hours I was hooked up, I had managed a full 40 minutes of light sleep.

The lab tech was solicitous. "That was the worst sleep study I've ever seen but we got enough for a diagnosis," he said.

I was surprised, and asked what he thought the doctor's diagnosis would be.

"Oh, you have insomnia," he said.

I went home, crawled into bed, listened with comfort to my barking dogs, and slept.

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