Catching Zs

Looking for Mister Sandman
MARCH 2007
By Ginny Prior

It’s been said, and I tend to agree, that a good man is hard to find. But the object of my affection is more elusive than most. With his bedroom eyes and dreamy disposition, he literally sweeps me off my feet. I call him Mister Sandman.

I’m not the only one who’s looking for this guy. Millions of Americans have insomnia, sleep apnea and other related problems. But the good news is there’s a hotbed of local research that can help.

Dr. Jerrold Kram is a sleep scientist, if you will, at the California Center for Sleep Disorders in Oakland and Alameda. One of the nation’s leading researchers, Kram has been conducting sleep studies since 1981, and he’s amazed at how many people ignore the symptoms of sleep deprivation. “Sleep is vital to our health and well being,” he says, “and one of the biggest problems is snoring.”

Not only is it annoying, but snoring could also be a sign of a more serious problem—obstructive sleep apnea. “In the last few years we have very strong evidence that this leads to high blood pressure, heart failure, heart attacks and strokes,” warns Kram.

Oakland firefighter Thomas Gallinatti snored, waking up at least 36 times a night. He was so sleep deprived; he’d conk out almost anywhere. “Last year in Las Vegas, I fell asleep at the slot machine,” he admits. But what really scared him was nodding off behind the wheel. Eventually it got so bad that he checked into the sleep center for testing.

Think of it as a B&B, sans the breakfast. You bring your pjs and slippers and spend the night in your own private room, with a shared bathroom down the hall. “As soon as I laid my head down,” says Gallinatti, “I went out.” Never mind the fact that he was wired with about 20 electrodes, measuring everything from brainwaves to eye movement and breathing.

By 1 a.m., the staff could see that Gallinatti wasn’t getting enough air. “Imagine falling asleep and having somebody cover your nose and mouth,” Kram says. Gallinatti had sleep apnea, and his airway was collapsing. In his haze, he remembers getting fitted for a nose apparatus and hooked up to a breathing machine. It didn’t work. They switched to a nose and chin strap combination. Still, not enough air. So around 3 o’clock they brought out the big guns—the full face mask with adjustable airflow. And just like that, he was able to sleep.

“Some people are just genetically poor sleepers,” says Kram, “and giving them something to help overcome their natural problems is something we’ve come to recognize.” And he says sleep apnea is much more common than we think.

“It’s not confined to the obese. Anyone can get it,” he says.
Kram stresses that his staff deals with treatments, not cures. “There are some surgical cures, but they require very aggressive surgery on the throat and jaw and aren’t 100 percent successful.” Of course, if obesity is a factor, weight loss can help.

Your mattress might be a factor, too. Kram says it’s obviously important to feel comfortable, and the key to comfort is support. “Not necessarily a firm mattress,” he says, “but one that conforms more to your contour.” How about the pillow? For snorers, it could make a difference. “In some people there’s a little bit of evidence that a pillow can position the head with the jaw kept forward and the head more extended.”

Otherwise, he says the pillow doesn’t really matter.

Darkness does matter. A key sleep ingredient is a dark, quiet room, since light is a stimulus to being awake. It’s also important to adhere to a regular sleep schedule, with the same wake-up time each day. “I advise people who have trouble slowing down to do a diary at night and try to get all of the ideas out of their head,” says Kram, who adds that problem sleepers should limit their alcohol and their activity in bed. “Don’t read in bed. Other than sleep, sex is the only activity we recommend.”

What about the plethora of products on the market to aid in sleep? Kram says they certainly can help. Sleeping pills, breathing strips, snoring sprays—they’ve all got their fans. But if you get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and you’re still not waking refreshed, Kram says you’ve most likely got a sleep disorder.

Heidi Janeiro sees the effects of sleep deprivation. As the first point of contact at the sleep center, she sees people walk in like zombies. “A lot of them become almost delirious, almost drunk, with really strange behavior,” she says. But the center’s success rate for treatment is high. And that’s a great thing for patients like Gallinatti, who trains firefighters for a living. “I’m going to tell everybody about this treatment,” he says. It’s unbelievable.”

Like the song says, “Mister Sandman, bring me a dream.”

Sweet Dreams

For more information on the California Center for Sleep Disorders, contact (510) 263-3300. Take a sleep quiz on the center’s Web site at


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