ST. PETE BEACH — Lauren Saslow rose with the sun Sunday morning to embark on a 2 mile walk on St. Pete Beach. But just a few years ago, it was a struggle to wake up before noon, or make it through the day without multiple naps.
“I never understood how people could go to work and then run errands and chores without taking long naps. The answer was so obvious, but I had no idea,” said Saslow, who got to stay in her monkey pajamas a little later than normal for the first Sleep Walk Tampa Bay, a walkathon to raise money and awareness for the 88 different sleep disorders affecting more people every year.
Looking for answers, Saslow found Project Sleep, a national support group for individuals with narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. On her 35th birthday, Saslow was diagnosed with narcolepsy and joined a network of others in the Tampa area living with the constant drowsiness.
“I get treatment to sleep properly at night, and it’s been life changing,” said Saslow, who works with VSA Florida, a non-profit for arts and the disabled. “I wake up and I don’t have to take naps all day. I don’t have to hit the snooze button six times. I felt more awake and even throughout the day and all the sudden I was like, ‘This is how normal people feel.’”
The Sleep Walk, which set up shop outside Trade Winds Resort on Sunday, attracted about 50 walkers, many of whom are doctors and specialists in sleep disorders like narcolepsy. With a morning stretch, breathing exercises and meditation session, pajama-clad volunteers walked the beaches to inform beachgoers about the importance of a good night’s sleep.
The walk was part of a growing movement to educate the public about the importance of good sleep health through Project Sleep and its “Narcolepsy: Not Alone” campaign. The movement began when Los Angeles native Julie Flygare was diagnosed with narcolepsy while in law school seven years ago and founded the organization.
Like many, Flygare made excuses for her sleepiness, but one day when she couldn’t remember driving to school she realized how dangerous the condition could be. Now with naps twice a day, medication twice a night and an understanding boyfriend that doesn’t mind rescheduling dates, Flygare is living with the disorder and overcoming the embarrassment that often goes with it.
“There’s a large population of people with narcolepsy, but I felt like we were missing these events like they have for other diseases,” Flygare said. “What was out there was really sleepy and we needed something cool and hip.”
Sleep medicine is a relatively new science, said Nicole Sonderman, a sleep technologist who measures sleep patterns in children as young as a few days old at All Children’s Hospital. Routines as normal as scrolling on a cell phone before going to sleep, watching TV before bed time or drinking large amounts of caffeine throughout the day have caused an increasing percentage of the population to develop disorders that are notoriously under-diagnosed. An estimated one in 2,000 people have narcolepsy, but it takes an average of 10 years for someone to actually get a diagnosis, Sonderman said.
It doesn’t end with narcolepsy. Getting enough sleep is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and staving off other disorders like diabetes, weight gain, depression, and hypertension, she said.
One of the best ways to ensure a good night’s sleep is to come up with a routine for brushing your teeth, taking a shower and settling in to bed with a book or meditation session. The best sleep is in cool, dark rooms on a regular schedule, Sonderman said.
To stay alert during the day, stay in the sun, stay hydrated and limit caffeine intake, Sonderman said.
“It’s free to get healthy sleep and to get the most out of the time you’re awake,” Sonderman said.