Tip/Thought of the Day

How To Get Better Sleep

I am absolutely convinced that lack of sleep contributes to the majority of our issues today- irritability, violence, stress, memory issues, distraction, accidents, making unsound decisions, fatigue, poor health, obesity. . . There’s an epidemic, and you’re part of it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Americans are in the middle of a sleep loss epidemic. Nearly eight in ten Americans say they would feel better and more prepared for the day if they had just one more hour of sleep. If you’ve ever spent a night tossing and turning, you already know how you’ll feel the next day- tired, cranky, and out of sorts. Missing out on the recommended 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye nightly does more than make you feel groggy and grumpy. The long-term effects of sleep deprivation are real. Sleep is a necessity as critical to life as breathing, and it affects every aspect of your life, from your productivity, to your health, to your mood. While most of us assume that sleep hours cut into our productive hours, we’re actually more productive when we get sufficient sleep. So while it may seem counterintuitive, your production will increase because you’ll have more energy and be able to think more clearly while working smarter and more efficiently.

However, there are other consequences of poor sleep that aren’t always as obvious. Without enough sleep, your brain and body systems won’t function normally. It can also dramatically lower your quality of life. A review of 16 studies found that sleeping for less than 6 to 8 hours a night increases the risk of early death by about 12 percent! Your central nervous system is the information highway of your body. Sleep is necessary to keep it functioning properly; chronic insomnia can disrupt how your body sends this information. Research suggests sleep deprivation can negatively affect your immune system, as well as contribute to weight gain, high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, bone loss, and depression. Sleep deprivation can also impair learning, alertness, concentration,judgement, problem solving and reasoning. Lack of sleep disrupts every physiologic function in the body. To make matters worse, lack of sleep hinders your ability to realize your own performance is impaired, making you think you’re functioning well when you probably aren’t.

So now we know that sleep is necessary, it’s up to each of us to make sure we get enough. In the end, getting a better nights sleep will help us all lead better lives. Behaviors during the day, and especially before bedtime, can have a major impact on your sleep. Daily routines- what you eat and drink, the medications you take, how you schedule your days, and how you choose to spend your evenings, can significantly impact the quality of sleep. Even a few slight adjustments can, in some cases, mean the difference between sound sleep and a restless night.

Sleep hygiene is a variety of different practices and habits that help us to fall asleep and stay asleep. They encourage a restful night, allowing us to awaken refreshed and ready for another day. After researching multiple sites and journals, I found the following list best represented healthy sleep hygiene tips:

• Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Get up at the same time every day, even on weekends or during vacations.

• Set a bedtime that is early enough for you to get at least 7 hours of sleep.

• Don’t go to bed unless you are sleepy. Struggling to fall sleep just leads to frustration. If you’re not asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room, and do something relaxing, like reading or listening to music until you are tired enough to sleep. The same applies if you wake in the middle of the night. Get up after 20 minutes and return when feeling tired.

• Establish a relaxing bedtime routine. Ease the transition from wake time to sleep time with a period of relaxing activities an hour or so before bed. Take a bath (the rise, then fall in body temperature promotes drowsiness), use aromatherapy, read a book, watch television, or practice relaxation exercises. Avoid stressful, stimulating activities like doing work or discussing emotional issues. Physically and psychologically stressful activities can cause the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with increasing alertness. If you tend to take your problems to bed, try writing them down, and then putting them aside.

• Use your bed only for sleep and sex.

•It is well documented that keeping your bedroom quiet and relaxing contributes to better sleep. A quiet, dark, and cool environment can help promote sleep. Why do you think bats congregate in caves for their daytime sleep? “To achieve such an environment, lower the volume of outside noise with earplugs or a “white noise” appliance. Use heavy curtains, blackout shades, or an eye mask to block light, a powerful cue that tells the brain that it’s time to wake up. Keep the temperature comfortably cool, between 60 and 75°F, and the room well ventilated,” says one Harvard study.

•Limit exposure to bright light in the evenings, including electronic equipment. Dim the lights and turn off all your devices, smartphones, laptops, and TVs, about 60 minutes before bedtime. Bright light is one of the biggest triggers to our brains that it’s time to be awake and alert, so start sending the opposite signal. Even think of taking the computer and TV out of the room altogether. Keeping computers, TVs, and work materials out of the room will strengthen the mental association between your bedroom and sleep.

• Don’t eat a large meal before bedtime. Your body isn’t meant to be digesting foods while sleeping. If you need a late night snack, eat light.

• Exercise is important to help your body feel ready for sleep. Even just taking a walk can get your blood moving and improve your sleep. It’s best to complete your workouts at least 2 hours before you go to bed so your body is ready to rest.

• Avoid consuming caffeine, alcohol, chocolates, nicotine, or any type of stimulant at least 6 hours before sleep (although alcohol may bring on sleep, after a few hours it acts as a stimulant). Nicotine changes the amount of time spent in each sleep cycle. It is estimated 1.2 minutes of sleep is lost for every cigarette smoked and smokers are 4 times more likely to report feeling unrefreshed after a night’s sleep than nonsmokers, (probably due to the fact they spend more time in light sleep).

• Reduce your fluid intake before bedtime to prevent or lessen the number of bathroom calls.

• Try not to nap or make it earlier in the day- limit to only 30 minutes.

• Don’t stare at the clock. According to one Harvard study, staring at a clock in your bedroom, either when you are trying to fall asleep or when you wake in the middle of the night, can actually increase stress, making it harder to fall asleep. Turn your clock’s face away from you.

• As a loving pet owner, this one hurts- keep furry friends out of the bed. They may feel comforting at first but their presence keeps you attuned to their needs and limits your sleeping space. They can also trigger allergies.

• Slip on socks. Some people have the unlucky lot in life of colder-than-comfortable extremities. According to a 1999 study, having warm hands and feet seemed to predict how quickly you’ll fall asleep.

•Breathing deeply mimics how your body feels when it’s already relaxed because it stimulates the body’s naturally-calming parasympathetic system. Try breathing in to the count of five, hold your breath for the count of five, breath out to the count of five, hold your breath for the count of five. After a few minutes you’ll be more relaxed and calm.

• It is estimated that 37 million Americans snore regularly. It certainly disturbs a bed partner’s sleep, but it can disrupt the snorer’s sleep, too, leading to more daytime sleepiness, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Some simple tips may help you keep it under control, like sleeping on your side instead of your back, avoiding alcohol before bed, and even losing weight. Many experts recommend sewing a tennis ball into the front pocket of an old t- shirt, and then wearing it backwards to make sleeping on your back uncomfortable enough to help you stay on your side.

• Try progressive muscle relaxation exercises which involves tensing then releasing the muscles throughout the body, directing your attention to each as you go. It can improve sleep quality and reduce fatigue. Imagine yourself somewhere calm, relaxing, and sleep-inducing. This deep relaxation method can slow brain wave activity, coaxing you toward sleep.

• If your bed partner is constantly stealing all the covers, or one of you sweats while the other shivers, it might be a good idea to use separate bed sheets and covers. Use only one fitted sheet to start, then individual top sheets and blankets. Also make sure the mattress is big enough for two people. As much as cuddling works when awake, it hampers sleep when you can’t stretch and maneuver.

• Believe it or not, lots of tossing and turning may be less about you and more about what you’re laying on. An uncomfortable mattress might be the source of your sleepless nights. Whether that’s because it’s lost its cushioning or because it’s simply too small, it’s important to recognize the signs that it’s time to buy a new one. Expect to make a swap every 5-10 years, according to Consumer Reports.

• Talk to your healthcare provider if insomnia persists. It may be due to obstructive sleep apnea, prostrate issues, restless leg, or medications.

Regardless of our hectic lives we all require sleep. There’s no question getting a full 7-9 hours of sleep will not only help you to have a healthier, happy life but it will help everyone around you as well. If needed, make a sleep diary to better understand your habits. Tune in Wednesday to read how lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain. That’s right, less sleep can mean more pounds!

-Dr. Courtney

For more information, visit the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard here.

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