Celebrate World Sleep Day

A sleep symposium celebrates World Sleep Day. Sleep researchers unite!

Posted Mar 16, 2018

Pingtree
Source: Pingtree

Today, March 16, 2018 is World Sleep Day, sponsored by the World Sleep Organization. World Sleep Day is an annual celebration of sleep and a call to action on important issues related to sleep, including medicine, education, social aspects and driving. Events aim to lessen the burden of sleep problems on society through better prevention and management of sleep disorders. World Sleep Day is held the Friday before Spring Vernal Equinox of each year. Future dates will be: March 15, 2019 and March 14, 2020. Events have been orchestrated globally and you can see a list here.

I was lucky to attend a few lectures at the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) Department of Medicine’s First Annual Sleep Symposium for Clinicians and Researchers. The event was the brainchild of Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., FAHA, Associate Professor of Nutritional Medicine at Columbia. St-Onge holds a vision for a Sleep Center of Excellence at CUMC that would unite researchers and clinicians from various divisions including Endocrinology, Cardiology, Psychiatry, Rehabilitation Medicine, and the School of Nursing, to name a few.

How does a nutritionist become involved in sleep research? St-Onge has a strong interest in studying how foods could influence disease risk factors, energy metabolism, and body composition. Her current research focuses on sleep and its association with obesity and cardiometabolic risk factors. There have been studies on how sleep influences diet, however not much attention has been placed on how diet may also influence sleep. St-Onge’s most recent work has brought her full-circle to her original passion related to foods and their influence on disease risk.

After suffering from sleepwalking, violent night terrors (also called sleep terrors), and resultant insomnia for over 20 years, I found recovery in 1990 with the help of Dr. Neil Kavey. Kavey is a pioneer in the world of sleep medicine; he founded Columbia University Medical Center/New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Sleep Disorders Center in 1975 and served as its director for over 35 years. The sleep center closed shortly after Kavey’s retirement, some years ago. CUMC currently serves its patients in need of sleep care through: the Columbia University Cardiopulmonary Sleep and Ventilatory Disorders Center, ColumbiaDoctors Neurology Sleep Disorders Center, and ColumbiaDoctors Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center.

St-Onge’s interest in spearheading a unified Sleep Center of Excellence at CUMC to connect practitioners and researchers is timely and will knit together a strong sleep-health community; her vision is encouraged by Donald W Landry, MD, PhD, and Chair of Columbia’s Department of Medicine, as well as by her many colleagues who attended today’s symposium.

St-Onge’s research on how diet affects sleep personally interests me; I found out firsthand how my sleep is inextricably linked to what I eat. For the first five years of my recovery from sleep disorders, Kavey placed me on 0.25 mg of Klonopin at bedtime. That regiment, along with attending Gestalt therapy, abated the sleepwalking completely and cut the occurrence of night terrors almost completely.

However, there came a time when my husband and I wanted to conceive a child and since Klonopin can cause a higher risk of birth defects, Kavey helped me to titrate the medicine. I was fearful of a sleepwalking/night terror relapse and became willing to go to any lengths to prevent such an occurrence. My fear of relapse was overwhelming yet my desire to have a child was greater. Further lifestyle changes ensued, including food choices…

I worked with a nutritionist, Annie Fox, who was an RN, a homeopath, and an herbalist. She once treated a woman who used to cook and eat whole meals while sleepwalking. (Since then I have met several people with similar experiences.) Fox had very strong opinions about the effects of low blood sugar on sleep quality. Like my father, I am hypoglycemic. I have low blood pressure, and tend toward anemia.

Back when I was experiencing episodes of sleepwalking and night terrors on a very regular basis I began awakening in the middle of episodes. Sometimes I’d bumble to the kitchen with my flashlight afterward and eat cereal, often by the light of the cracked-open refrigerator. The bowl shook in my hands. Sometimes I spilled milk. Sometimes I cried over it. Eventually I would calm. The ritual grounded me – or so I felt at the time.

Fox believed that my habit of eating sugary cereal in an effort to calm and ground myself after sleepwalking and/or night terror episodes (or even during middle-of-the-night bouts of insomnia) proved a phenomenon of craving. She explained that the best way to stop my body’s need for sugar and white flour in the night was to give them up altogether—to do so would mean less chance of a recurrence of the sleep disorders.

I stopped eating sugar and white flour. I hadn’t had coffee in years because of its effects on my sleep and gave up the occasional, treasured cup of decaf coffee and Earl Grey tea. I could not deny the positive effects of iron, magnesium, and vitamin B rich foods in my diet and also began a regime of vitamins and supplements. I notice that even now, these many years later, if I miss the B complex for an extended period of time, I will have a minor night terror. That said, my father had severe insomnia. During the 1970s, he was prescribed sleeping pills, and became addicted . A family friend, a physician, helped him kick the habit with a regimen of vitamin B shots as he detoxed.

As for myself, the dietary changes I implemented when coming off the Klonopin, under Fox’s care, worked. Sleepwalking and night terrors are a thing of my past, one night at a time. I am not a medical professional. However, as a sleep activist, advocating for healthy sleep as a basic human right, I cannot deny my own experience of how my diet continues to strongly affect my sleep.

Brava to Dr. St-Onge, to all of her sleep research colleagues at CUMC, and to the scientists and sleep activists around the world who are each doing their part to raise awareness about sleep health. Happy World Sleep Day!