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Layoffs, job stress take toll on slumber


Local doctors and sleep centers say they've seen more patients complaining of problems sleeping since the economy started tanking, and though the economic news has improved lately, its effects are lingering.

Frances is a 49-year-old Miami law firm employee who has lost sleep because of fears about her job and her boyfriend's job evaporating.

'I'll have dreams about what can happen, of actual conversations of talking to my boyfriend and saying, `Oh, my God, we've ended up in a shelter,' '' said Frances, who asked that she not be identified by her real name. ``I don't worry about the economic condition of his company, but he has a very unique position in a technical field. It would be difficult to quickly or in a reasonable amount of time find another position if he was laid off. He would literally have to reinvent himself. It's terrifying.''

Frances, a single mother of two teenagers, says she goes to bed at 10:30 p.m., but wakes up two to three times during the night before finally awakening at 4 a.m. Her sleep woes began about a year ago, she said -- approximately when the economic news started turning grim.

The diminished sleep is affecting Frances' health. She is now being medicated for high blood pressure and is taking Xanax for anxiety and heart palpitations.

Frances is not alone. According to a poll taken in March by the National Sleep Foundation, one-third of Americans were losing sleep over the state of the economy. The random poll of 1,000 adults showed that the number of people reporting sleep problems has increased 13 percent since 2001. In the past eight years, the number of Americans who sleep fewer than six hours a night jumped from 13 percent to 20 percent and those who reported sleeping eight hours or more dropped from 38 to 28 percent.

Losing shut-eye is no small problem. Experts say it can lead to chronic health problems, affect people's ability to concentrate and do well in a job interview, and even lead to car accidents as people fall asleep while driving.

''It's easy to understand why so many people are concerned over the economy and jobs, but sacrificing sleep is the wrong solution,'' said David Cloud, CEO of the nonprofit National Sleep Foundation. ``Sleep is essential for productivity, alertness and is a vital sign of one's overall health.''

Dr. Juan Carlos Paredes, a Miami Beach psychiatrist, said that 80 percent of his patients have some degree of insomnia. Most of the problems can be attributed to the economy, he said.

''A lot of people are concerned about their finances and they unfortunately take those worries to bed,'' Paredes said. ``Even if they come in for a different reason, I go over sleep issues with them and they are there.''

Paredes, who considers sleep ''the second most important bodily function after breathing,'' counsels his patients to live a healthy lifestyle -- eat healthy, don't watch too much television, drink a lot of water, exercise, avoid cigarettes and ''have fulfilling sex'' -- in order to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, which is the recommended sleep time for most people, though individual needs can vary.

Still, Paredes acknowledges that he may have to prescribe sleeping pills for the seriously sleep-deprived -- for example, people who just lost their jobs or homes.

At the Mercy Hospital Sleep Lab, business is so good that the four beds in the unit are usually filled. There, patients show up in their jammies and are given a private room, complete with television and bathroom. At 9 p.m., a technician comes in with a somewhat scary-looking array of colored wires and belts. The technician applies the devices, using a gooey gel, to the patient's head, jaw, nose, legs and waist.

The wires and belts are hooked up to monitors observed in a separate room by technicians throughout the night. If a patient stops breathing during the night due to sleep apnea, snores heavily, or awakens frequently due to restless leg syndrome, the monitor will show that. Those conditions are treatable with drugs or a special oxygen mask. If physical problems are ruled out, the patient is referred to a psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

Last year, the Cleveland Clinic Florida's Sleep Disorders Center in Weston moved its sleep lab to the nearby Courtyard Marriott Hotel. There, patients with chronic sleep problems can be studied in a luxurious setting and don't have to be admitted to a hospital.

''We have definitely seen an increase in chronic insomnia in the last year,'' said associate director Dr. Jose Ramirez. ``There is a very close relationship between stress and anxiety and insomnia. A lot of our patients have their own businesses and are undergoing a significant economic strain.''

Those who lose their health insurance and can't afford doctors or sleep clinics have options, too. Companies selling sleep audiotapes, relaxing lavender aromatherapy and even calming bedside waterfalls report higher sales.

''We've seen a 40 percent increase in sales in the last few months,'' said Tim Friesen, CEO of SleepAudios.com, which markets audiotapes in which a a hypnotic voice lulls insomniacs into sleep.

There are other, more novel approaches.

Cynthia McKay, an Orlando native now living in Denver, is CEO of Le Gourment Gift Basket, a company with 518 franchises. In the last year, she found herself up all night worrying about customers who weren't paying their bills. She was offered a prescription for a sleeping pill, but worried she could slide into addiction.

So McKay, 54, got a golden retriever. Now, when her mind starts racing at 2 a.m., she cuddles up to her friend and falls back asleep.

''I'm a Type A personality, running a company, always thinking corporate,'' McKay said. ``Having my dog helps. It's pure, unconditional love.''

© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
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