In his new book, local author and sleep researcher Paul Glovinsky says the solution to insomnia may have more to do with getting sleepy than trying to fall asleep
By Stephen Leon
Dr. Paul Glovinsky calls it his “Alice in Wonderland” moment. A graduate student studying neurophysiology at the City University of New York, he was doing grad work at Montefiore Hospital in the late 1970s when, during a lunch break, he became fascinated with a wide door bearing the sign “Laboratory of Human Chronophysiology.”
“I opened it, and I went in, and met people working there,” Glovinsky recalls of his first peek into the world of circadian cycles and sleep science. “It was the excitement of a new field. Everyone I was talking to, it was a feeling of exploration. People had a sense that they were in a special place.”
And they were: the field of sleep research was about to experience exponential growth. Prior to this era, there had been some clinical studies (REM sleep was defined and linked to dreams by researchers in 1953), but the field—led by pioneers William Dement and Michael Jouvet—was still young. “There were many people studying circadian rhythms, but mainly in animal models,” Glovinsky says.
The sleep center at Montefiore was one of only two in the country at the time (the other was at Stanford University); today, in Glovinsky’s estimation, “there are probably over a thousand.”
Glovinsky, who was born and raised in the Detroit area and graduated from Yale University, received his Ph.D. from CUNY and wrote his dissertation on sleep. Today, he is a leading expert on the subject: along with his longtime colleague Arthur Spielman, Glovinsky wrote The Insomnia Answer: A Personalized Program for Identifying and Overcoming the Three Types of Insomnia (Penguin, 2006), and You Are Getting Sleepy: Lifestyle-Based Solutions for Insomnia (Diversion, 2017).
With The Insomnia Answer—widely respected among Spielman and Glovinsky’s peers, and influential in subsequent treatment of insomnia—the authors introduced three distinct sets of factors associated with insomnia: predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating. “Predisposing” refers to characteristics people are born with; “precipitating” factors are stressful life changes including divorce, job loss, and the death of a loved one; and “perpetuating” factors are the maladjusted behaviors people employ to compensate for sleeping poorly. While the stress of precipitating factors is likely to recede over time, or go away altogether with a new job or spouse, the perpetuating behaviors often remain.
“The 3P behavioral model,” wrote reviewers Frank M. Ralls and Swala K. Abrams in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, “is beautifully explained and serves to logically demonstrate to the readers how insomnia occurs acutely and how it may become chronic and self-perpetuating.”
Patricia Fennell, who founded Albany Health Management Associates, Inc., and has worked with Glovinsky at the intersection of sleep disorders and chronic illness, adds that “precipitating factors can include a car accident, a fall, or even a severe flu. A kid comes home for Thanksgiving. It’s flu season; she gets sick. She goes back to school and she gets seriously ill. It turns out, an acute autoimmune disease has been triggered. It affects her sleep. She has pain, which also affects her sleep. She has to take new medication, which also can affect her sleep. And thus, a likely precipitating factor, the flu, produced a sleep disorder and the autoimmune condition.”
“You do not have to have a chronic disease to have a sleep disorder. But show me somebody who has chronic disease, and I’ll show you somebody who probably has sleep issues.”
With You Are Getting Sleepy, Spielman and Glovinsky turned their attention away from the perpetuating factors they had covered so well (along with other subsequent researchers) in The Insomnia Answer, and trained their sights on predisposing factors they considered less well-covered, including chronic conditions such as depression, anxiety, circadian rhythm disorder, and hyperarousal, any of which can sap a person’s energy during their waking hours and throw off their sleep cycles. (To that list, Fennell would add chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.)
In clinical trials, Spielman and Glovinsky had come to a new conclusion: some patients were focusing too much on getting to sleep and not enough on getting sleepy.
“Sleepiness–that’s my new hook here,” Glovinsky says. “It’s a common result of an experience with insomnia or chronic sleeplessness that people become more attuned to the question of whether they’re going to sleep or not,” and they make too much of an effort to try to figure it out. “The paradox is that the more you make an effort to sleep, the less likely you will get to sleep.”
People who aren’t getting enough sleep at night often get sleepy at other times of the day, when it interferes with work or family or the general quality of their life. So Glovinsky and Spielman shifted their focus to “trying to get people sleepy at the right time and place. There are things you can do to promote sleepiness.” And recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to insomnia, they wrote and organized You Are Getting Sleepy in a way that encourages readers to jump around and look for strategies that fit their personal experiences.
Before they began writing, the authors knew their clinical work was opening up new ground to cover in a book, but they faced an ominous new obstacle: Spielman was diagnosed with cancer and began to undergo chemotherapy. In 2014, while Glovinsky was on vacation, he was dogged by the realization that the clock was ticking, and called Spielman from Greece to insist that they had to get to work on it as soon as possible. Spielman, whom Glovinsky considered the originator of many of the concepts they developed together, contributed to the project until he died in 2015.
Although Glovinsky was more the writer of the pair, he now had to face the loss of his trusted colleague and sounding board. “That was difficult. It took a year before I picked it up again. Writing was not the issue. But in 30 years, I always had him to bring things to me.”
Glovinsky, who lives in Columbia County and New York City with his wife of 35 years, Maureen (with whom he has three grown sons), finished the book in 2016, and it was released this year by Diversion.
Glovinsky met his two most influential lifelong colleagues—Spielman and Aaron Sher—on the same day in 1979 while doing his graduate work at CUNY. Today, Glovinsky practices psychology at the St. Peter’s Sleep Center in Albany, where Sher was medical director until his recent retirement. Glovinsky also was, for many years, an adjunct professor of psychology at the Graduate Center at CUNY in New York City, where Spielman taught until his death.
Insomnia and associated problems affect more than 10 percent of the population, Glovinsky says. And people who rely on sleeping pills to solve the problem tend to believe that only the pills can cure the insomnia, which he argues is not productive in the long run. “My thrust in writing the book is that sleep is in you,” he says. “Ultimately, you have to believe you can sleep again.”
Looking back at the day he decided to push open the mysterious door at Montefiore Hospital, Glovinsky marvels at how well that fateful impulse played out.
“Sleep, it turns out, is intimately related to just about everything that happens in waking life. It effects our cells, organs, systems, behaviors, moods, thoughts, and social roles. Few of us had any inkling of this range back in the 1970s, as we were making career choices. We have been astounded by new discoveries concerning sleep in every year since. That’s why, I think, my walking through that Alice in Wonderland door at Montefiore turned out to be such a serendipitous choice.”
@Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon