There’s nothing quite like a good night’s sleep…and awakening to the promise of a new day! But these days, getting a good night’s sleep seems to be more elusive than ever.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three Americans routinely do not get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can contribute to health issues such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and impaired memory. Therefore, lack of sleep is a true public health crisis. The Rand Corporation published a study reporting over $400 billion loss to US companies annually due to employees’ lack of sleep. So why is our nation sleep-deprived and what can we do to be better sleepers?
Falling asleep should be one of the easiest tasks for us to accomplish, right? Yet many of us cannot do it well, nor on a consistent basis. How can we improve “sleep hygiene,” or healthy sleep habits? Happily, most of the practices that promote sound sleep are under our control! Here’s what you need to know:
A Consistent Schedule Matters: Humans have a circadian rhythm, which means we follow a day/night cycle of approximately 24 hours. That being said, the more consistently we manage our sleep/wake cycles, the better. Try to get to bed at the same time most evenings and awaken at approximately the same time each morning. Resist the temptation to stay up very late or sleep in, even on weekends or days off. By staying consistent with your cycle, your body will have an established routine.
Age Makes a Difference: Aging presents issues with regard to sleep, with many people waking up more frequently and have a harder time getting back to sleep as they get older. This could be due to a variety of reasons, including less time spent in a deep sleep, the need to urinate during the night, anxiety, or discomfort from pain or chronic illness.
Avoid Substances and Meals that can Interrupt Your Sleep: Be judicious about using substances such as alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. These chemicals can stay in our systems for up to 14 hours and disturb sleep. On that note, a large, heavy meal can be difficult to digest close to bedtime and interfere with sleep.
Stress Plays a Role: Stress…who doesn’t have it? A stressful day flows into the evening and you can’t relax. Besides your brain being preoccupied, stress cause the body to release the stress hormone cortisol which promotes increased alertness.
Medical Conditions can Make an Impact: A variety of medical issues can also keep you from sleeping well. More than just annoying snoring, sleep apnea is a dangerous condition where you can have decreased breathing, changes in vital signs and startle yourself into wakefulness. Oftentimes Restless Leg Syndrome may accompany sleep apnea. If you or your partner snore, have a sleep study performed by a specialist and follow the recommended treatment. Chronic insomnia interferes with your body’s restorative sleep and can have deleterious health effects on the brain and body as well.
Try to Respect Your Circadian Rhythm:Establish a consistent bedtime and wake up time and stick to it. Keep your bedroom as dark as possible with room darkening shades, blinds or use a sleep mask. Avoid lights from electronics in the bedroom. Keep your bedroom cool with the use of a fan, or by opening a window and turning down the furnace. Foam earplugs can reduce noises surprisingly well. Some swear by white noise machines available at most department or electronics stores. Don’t underestimate the benefits of a comfortable, supportive mattress, pillows and blankets. Make a rule that you won’t eat, watch TV or pull out your phone/laptop to do work in bed.
Limit Fluids After Dinner as much as Possible: Have that last coffee at lunch or switch to an evening decaf. Some feel that a “night cap” alcoholic drink will relax them for sleep. Initially, alcohol will make one feel sleepy, but then it will actually disturb your sleep.
Have a Bedtime Ritual (like when you were a child): I often share this information with my patients who are just home from the hospital, may have pain, are off their routine, have stress and concerns. Take a warm bath or shower if possible, perform some relaxation techniques such as tensing and relaxing muscles, or do some deep breathing. Try reading for a short time. Enjoy a small glass of milk and a light carbohydrate snack. A very effective technique I employ is to keep a pad of paper and a pen on my nightstand. I journal about ideas, concerns and worries. Then I put them aside. I have taken everything off my mind and put it down on paper where I know it will be waiting for me in the morning.
Exercise: With regard to exercise and fitness, those who have a regular fitness routine fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. However, try to exercise earlier in the day or at least 3-4 hours before bedtime.
Napping: Short “cat naps” of 20-30 minutes are fine if needed. They can refresh you. Anything longer can make you feel groggy and interfere with your nighttime sleep.
These days there are high tech mattresses, gadgets, apps, fancy pillows that monitor sleep cycles, sensors and sleep tracking watches available to help you get to sleep and measure your sleep performance. None of these devices come cheap. I would argue that for most people, following the ideas discussed above and taking a do-it-yourself approach to improving your sleep works best. Of course, if sleep problems persist, see your health care provider for help.